Style defines. The Fun and Gun defined Florida in the 90s. Alabama is defined by their defense. Ohio State is now known for Urban Meyer’s Spread offense. In Atlanta Georgia Tech is the triple option. Paul Johnson’s offense is called a triple option offense, which really isn’t accurate. The triple option is a play that is run in the offense, not the offense itself. In 2014 the Yellow Jackets averaged about 70 plays a game, about 10-15 triple options, so there were mostly non-option plays being run.
It is fair to call Georgia Tech an option team because they do run the triple option. The triple option was once a very common base play in college, but teams have moved away from it in the last few decades. The Yellow Jackets have developed their reputation because they are an anomaly and because they have been successful with a play that some scoff at as being from another era.
The triple option is also often utilized by teams playing at a talent disadvantage. The service academies usually run the triple option and variants of it. Navy has had some of the most high profile success running the play. Paul Johnson ran it when he was there, and his protege and successor, Ken Niumatalolo, continues to run it as well. The option’s use by underdogs has led to the perception that the option is a gimmick, utilized by weak teams to trick stronger, better opponents.
The triple option criticism and name calling is usually coming from fans of teams who are falling victim to the play. The play is fundamentally sound and productive, and trying to label it a gimmick is meaningless. Lack of respect for the play and the rest of the offense Tech runs is usually rooted in lack of understanding of both.
Running the ball requires having a plan for handling defenders. The simplest thing to do is to have offensive players block defenders, but there is a second way to handle defenders. A defender can be optioned, which means he will not be blocked. The optioned defender will be put in a position where he has to choose a direction to pursue. Once he commits to pursuing a particular way, the offensive player either goes another way or gives the ball to another player going another way. The ball carrier chooses one of two available options based on what the defender does.
The triple option is so named because it provides three outcomes for the play. Those outcomes are determined by two choices. The play begins with the quarterback taking the snap and meeting a running back headed forward. The first option is for the quarterback to give the ball to the running back or keep it himself. Before the play a defender is designated who will be optioned for this part of the play. Usually it is the defensive tackle on the play side of the field (red in the diagram). If the defensive tackle starts to pursue the running back, the quarterback will not give the ball to the running back; he will keep it himself and continue the play. If the defensive tackle does not pursue the running back, the quarterback gives the ball to the running back.
Assuming the defensive tackle has forced the quarterback to keep the ball, the quarterback will run to the outside and toward the second optioned defender. At the same time a pitch man is running parallel but apart from the quarterback. This is a running back or receiver who is available if the quarterback needs to pitch the ball.
The second optioned defender is usually a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The quarterback attacks this defender, meaning he runs directly toward him. If the defender tries to tackle the quarterback, he pitches the pitch man. If the defender does anything else the quarterback keeps the ball and runs upfield.
When run properly the two optioned defenders are always wrong. No matter what they choose they are in the wrong position. This creates the frustration that defenses and their fans so routinely express when they play the Yellow Jackets. Here is a successful run from last year’s Orange Bowl.
The triple option can be run out of many formations. All that is needed is a quarterback, running back and a pitch man. Traditional formations like the I, wishbone and T can be used to run it. Georgia Tech uses a flex bone. The flex bone is a formation derived from the wishbone. The two half backs in the wishbone line up in the slot in the flex bone. They are called A backs in Atlanta.
They get in position to become pitch men by coming in motion.
Georgia Tech isn’t just an option team as Paul Johnson is quick to point out. The perception comes from the effectiveness of the option and a great many plays that look like the option. Here’s one from the Orange Bowl.
It looks like the option in the backfield. The quarterback gives to the dive man and then continues his fake with the pitchman, but it’s not the option. Look at the tackle’s blocking. If the play were the option he would be looking for a linebacker to block and would leave the defensive lineman alone to be optioned. He drives the defender out of the way for the designed run.
This is a devastatingly effective play for the Yellow Jackets. Everyone watching the backfield will see the option coming, but that’s not the play. The offensive line, the definitive source for decoding a play, reveals its true character. If linebackers and the secondary are preoccupied with the backfield, they won’t see the blockers coming for them.
Here’s another triple option related play.
This is a double option. The quarterback has the option to read the defensive lineman and give the ball to the running back, but he doesn’t have the pitch option. The pitchman runs upfield to block.
This creates another problem for the defenders. Ideally the defense has a defender with responsibility for the quarterback and one for the pitch man. in this play the pitch man blocks the defender with quarterback responsibility. The defender with pitch man responsibility is now defending a player who isn’t there.
More confusion and frustration ensue. The same backfield action creates these plays, and others, where sometimes the defender is optioned. Sometimes he is blocked, and sometimes he’s left watching the play go by.
Last season Georgia Tech finished with 11 wins and won the Orange Bowl in large part because of the strength of their offensive scheme. This year they will win a lot of games again with the same offense and the same strategy. The triple option is the base from which the other plays and variations are then run. As the defense adjust to stop the triple option, Paul Johnson then changes the plays so that there are more blockers or less, more optioned players or less. It results in lots of rushing yards, lots of points and lots of wins.