After the season opening blowout of Texas and survival against Virginia, Notre Dame’s pre-season expectations seem less like hype and more like reality. They will take that hype to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are off to their own hot start (against less than compelling competition) but remain a dark horse candidate to make the playoff.
Notre Dame, the perpetual blue blood, forever on the cusp of a return to glory, is trying to make their way into the playoff by forging their own path as an independent. On the other side is Georgia Tech, the often overlooked ACC power who is written off for running a gimmick offense, trying to forge its path on the back of an offense everyone hates to face.
Like every Georgia Tech opponent, the Fighting Irish will be tasked with shutting down Paul Johnson’s Triple Option offense. Notre Dame is better suited to stop the offense than many of the Yellow Jackets’ opponents because the Irish see the triple option every year from Navy. The Midshipmen run a very, very similar version of the offense GT does because Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo is part of the Paul Johnson coaching tree.
Even so Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder has a difficult task stopping the Yellow Jackets. The offense is fundamentally sound, creatively varied and run by experienced players who know what they are doing. Van Gorder also doesn’t have the best track record against the offense surrendering 39 points to Navy last season.
Stopping the Option
Van Gorder was asked about the option before playing Navy last season and said candidly, “there’s nobody out there that has the answer.” That sure is honest, if not reassuring, for the Irish faithful. He elaborated that a “good, solid preparation and a good philosophical approach is required.” He’s right.
De-mystifying the option
The triple option holds a special place in the pantheon of offensive schemes. It is simultaneously derided as being a dinosaur offense from a by-gone era and terrifying to defend against. Its success and tendency to make defenders look lost, creates a tremendous amount of frustration for defenders and fans alike. That frustration creates a physcological advantage that needn’t be there.
The option is played with 11 players on offense just like every other offense. The offense then accounts for every player on the defense, just like every other offense. The obvious digression from “every other offense” is the way in which the offense handles a small minority of defenders.
Offenses handle defenders in one of three ways. First and simplest, they block them. Second, they trick or bluff them as in the case of a receiver running a decoy pattern or running a defender off in coverage. Third, they option them. Note that optioned a defender is different than tricking him.
It takes as many players to option a defender as it does to block him. An optioned defender is not blocked, but it does take an additional offensive player (other than the ball carrier) to successfully handle the defender. When a quarterback runs a speed option at a defensive end, he must have a pitch man available to make the play work. From a numbers standpoint, the offense needs an additional player whether the additional player blocks or acts as the pitch man. Consider the two following examples:
In this simplified example there is a defender (DE) and two offensive players (QB & RB). The quarterback uses the running back to option the defensive end.
In this additional example, we see the running back used in a decidedly different way; he blocks the defensive end.
Both plays have their strengths and weaknesses; both require the same amount of players to execute. One play uses an offensive player to option a defender, the other uses an offensive player to block a defender. The math remains the same. The triple option isn’t some sort of mystical hocus pocus that multiplies offensive players and creates other worldly advantages.
How to Beat the Option
Beat Blocks. The option is beautiful when it works properly, but so is every successful offensive play. If every offensive player makes the right block and the right read, the offense will score. But that rarely happens. People miss blocks, and defenders beat blocks, and when defenders beat blocks, offenses stop. The single biggest defense against any offense is defeating blocks.
Be decisive. Defenders aren’t used to being optioned; they are used to being blocked. When they are double teamed or chopped, they instinctively know what to do. When they are optioned, they don’t always react as quickly. Slow action or indecision is poison for an offense trying to stop the triple option. The only thing worse than making the wrong decision as a defender is not making a decision at all.
Defenders have to know their assignments and have to quickly execute them. The player with the quarterback must take him immediately. Every split second he thinks and delays gives an advantage to the offense. When a quarterback options a defender he is making a choice. If that choice is hurried it is sometimes wrong; the pitch isn’t as good, and the play doesn’t run as smoothly.
Confuse the decision. An optioned defender creates two decisions for the ball carrier: give the ball or keep the ball. The defender has to choose which offensive player he is going to defend, then the ball carrier decides to keep or give. The offense flourishes when defenders get confused about their assignment or who has the ball, but the offense is capable of being confused as well.
If the defense keeps the same responsibilities all game, the offense will exploit it. This is true against any competent offense. A defense which has a good idea which plays are coming, such as the triple option can vary its responsibilities and scheme to create indecision and confusion on the part of the offense. A scrape exchange can be used to change things, as well as other tactics. If the offense gets confused or is slow in decision making, it is just as lethal to their gameplan as it is to a defense.
Schematically and technically sound. The triple option has the tendency to cause frustration and outright panic in defensive coaches and players. They blitz out of frustration or give short shrift to their primary responsibility to try to stop a play that is grinding out four yards over and over again. Whenever the defense or a defensive player cheats to try to stop what they think is coming, they are vulnerable to exploitation.
For some reason the triple option’s incessant march of four and five yard gains tend to foster schematically unsound responses. When it does, four and and five yard gains become touchdown plays and game changers. This is what Van Gorder is talking about when he talks about a good philosophical approach. Discipline in keeping with assignments is important.
Notre Dame has the experience with the option to know how to handle it. They probably won’t be able to completely stop it, but they may be able to slow it. Watch for defenders beating their blocks or for them to be indecisive. Look for times when the quarterback’s decision is forced quickly or when defenders run out of position to try to make a big play. Those keys will show who is winning the match up and probably the game.
See Also: The Basics of the Triple Option