With Cal’s bowl game against the Air Force Academy coming up tomorrow, I thought I’d do a little exploration of the triple option, a rather unique (at least in today’s football landscape) type of offense that Air Force has run with great success.
For the past 23 years, ever since longtime coach Fisher DeBerry became the head coach at the Academy, Air Force has run a version of the triple option. They began by running it out of what’s known as the wishbone formation, but more recently have turned to a slightly different formation known as the flexbone.
The base flexbone formation with two slotbacks (SB), two wide receivers (WR), a quarterback (QB), a fullback (FB), and five down linemen (OL). Image stolen shamelessly from Wikipedia.
The basic idea of the triple option is this: the quarterback can read the defense and go one of several different ways with the ball. The first option is to simply go backwards and hand off to the fullback (1). If the quarterback fakes the handoff, he then runs behind his offensive line towards either sideline, with the slotback out ahead of him. He then has the option of either keeping the ball himself (2) and running forward through a hole in the defense, or pitching out to the slotback (3).
Although the specific option that the quarterback will choose can be called in the huddle, an experienced option quarterback (and Air Force’s Shaun Carney, a 4-year starter, is definitely experienced) will read the defense both before and during the play, selecting his option based on what the defense gives him. From this lengthy obituary on the wishbone offense:
In the triple option, the quarterback puts the ball in the fullback’s belly and checks the defensive linemen’s reaction. Should he see an end or tackle anticipating the pitch, the quarterback hands off. If the line key plays the fullback, the quarterback heads to the corner with the pitch man in tow, looking for a two-on-one situation. If the defender plays him, he pitches. When the halfback is covered, the quarterback keeps the ball and cuts upfield.
From another basic article on the triple option:
Here’s one way to teach the quarterback to read the end - If he can see the end’s number, he should pitch the football as the end is probably coming in to tackle him. If he sees the end coming across the line of scrimmage focusing on the halfback, the QB should keep the ball. The quarterback should also keep an out for further pitch opportunities to his halfback even as he’s making his way downfield.
Whatever the decision, the triple option is a running play, and option teams will run the football quite a bit. In Air Force’s 20-12 defeat of Utah earlier this year, they ran the ball 63 times for 334 yards(!), while only completing 8 of 14 passes for a mere 56 yards. This kind of activity will really frustrate and tire a defense, while giving its own defense time to rest. Additionally, because the defense is keyed to stop the run, the wide receivers will usually be in single coverage, which means that when option teams do decide to pass, they can often get big yardage from the passing game.
One reason that the option has flourished at the service academies is that you don’t need a dominant offensive line to run the ball effectively. The O-linemen are blocking low and fast playside or releasing to screen linebackers - one on one blocks aren’t needed as much as in other schemes. Because of height and weight restrictions, service academies can’t stock up on 350-pound behemoths like Ryan O’Callaghan (not that they’ll win that many recruiting battles for these guys anyway), but the triple option allows teams to succeed with smaller, faster guys up front. Although it contains elements of power football, the option succeeds when it is run with precision and excellent decision-making by the quarterback. As a well-oiled offensive machine, it can be very tough to stop.
So what does a defense do to stop the triple option? Discipline is key here. Defenders have to stick to their assignments, and not get too aggressive. All it takes is for a defender or two to go after the quarterback too hard, and suddenly the QB pitches to the halfback outside, and there’s only one guy between him and the end zone. In essence, bend-but-don’t-break can work really well here. The triple option is great for getting 4 or 5 yards on every play, but if the offense gets into second- or third-and-long, it can be very difficult to make up 8 or 10 yards to pick up the first down. A single false start penalty can be enough to kill a drive. Of course, at a school like Air Force where discipline is so emphasized, that’s not generally a problem.
Of course, many of you will recognize the Air Force attack from the last couple times when these teams met, first in 2002 (a 23-21 AFA win) and again to open the 2004 season (a 56-14 blowout by Cal). Still, there have been changes. Fisher DeBerry retired at the end of last year, with assistant Troy Calhoun taking over. Calhoun, himself a former Air Force quarterback running the triple option, promised an update to the Falcon’s offense, including a move away from exclusively running the option. From Air Force’s 2007 Spring Football Prospectus:
"You have to be a strong running team and have you have to be good on the defensive side of the ball to be able to stop the running game," Calhoun said. "In this day and age of football, you have to have some balance. You have to be able to run the ball well, but you also have to be very effective in the passing game. We want the defense to have to defend the entire field and we want to take tremendous pride in a physical approach to football."
We’ll definitely see some triple option tomorrow, but it won’t always be run from the flexbone. It could come from a power-I formation, or possibly even out of the shotgun. And we’ll see more of a passing attack than in year’s past. In their 20-17 overtime victory over TCU earlier this year, Air Force found themselves down 17-3 in the fourth quarter, in part because the running game had stalled (42 rushed for only 146 yards). Forced to turn to the air to catch up, Carney completed 17 of 28 passes for 193 yards (more passing yards than rushing!) in completing the comeback.
In any case, tomorrow’s game should be interesting. Can our defense stay disciplined against a complicated Air Force attack? Can they make enough plays to stall a potent ground game? And can our offense hang on to the ball long enough to give our defense a rest?
I actually like our chances tomorrow, although you may have noticed that we here at the California Golden Blogs tend to be among the most optimistic of Cal fans. Still, one thing that I think works in our favor: if you’re going to face an oddball, gimmicky offense like the triple option, it’s best to have the most amount of time to prepare for it as possible. Although Cal didn’t fare so well in 2002 (the 4th game of the season), they looked much better in 2004, when they had all of fall camp to prepare for the season opener in Colorado Springs. Even in that game, it took them half the game to get used to what Air Force was trying to do, giving up a touchdown in each of the first two quarters before absolutely shutting them down after halftime (58 total yards in the second half). No, our defense isn’t as talented as the 2004 edition, but I still think the extra weeks of bowl practices will give Cal the best possible chance of preparing for the Air Force Academy.
Go Bears! Beat the Falcons!