The University at Buffalo knows what's coming from Army this afternoon: the triple option. But knowing it and stopping it are two different things.
The first threat is big and furious. Usually a fullback the size of a small Hummer ramming himself head-first into the heart of the defense. UB, say hello to Collin Mooney, 5-foot-10, 247 pounds, and a winner of Army's "Black Death Award."
The next option is the trickiest of the three. The quarterback, tall and gangly, is running hard and fast toward the sideline. The football is in his hands. Isn't it? He is part con artist, part David Blaine. UB, get to know Carson Williams.
And the final threat is the game breaker. The I-back, speedy and smooth, can be dangerous on the corners of the defense if he gets the ball and running room. UB, here's Wesley McMahand, all 5-5, 177-pounds of him.
And just when you think all of that is covered -- the fullback, the quarterback and the tailback -- every so often a fleet-footed receiver, maybe Jameson Carter, is running free in the secondary and Williams stops on a dime in the backfield and lofts a soft pass for a big gain.
Beginning at 3:30 p.m., in front of an expected capacity crowd for Homecoming at UB Stadium (TWC13, ESPN Plus, Radio 1230 AM) the Bulls will be properly introduced to Army's triple-option offense.
"They're not fancy, they may not be pretty, but they understand what they're doing and why they're doing it," said UB coach Turner Gill. "We have to be tremendously disciplined and we have to tackle well."
The roots of the triple option can be traced to Texas and the early 1960s. It is a hybrid of the old veer option that used to dominate Southwest football. Nebraska installed it in 1980 to counter the success rival Oklahoma had with the wishbone offense and recruited one of the greatest ever to run it: Gill. And he was more than willing to provide insight on how to contain it.
"You have one guy responsible for the fullback, one guy responsible for quarterback, one guy responsible for the pitch guy," he said. "Therefore when you have one guy responsible for it and that guy misses the tackle, you're going to give up a big play."
Basically, the triple option is peek-a-boo football.
"I'm going to have to wake up and keep my eyes open for any trick plays," said sophomore cornerback Domonic Cook (St. Joe's). "I know every team has a trick play under their sleeve, some kind of deep ball, I just have to do what I do best and just play the game."
Oklahoma, Alabama and Nebraska used the option offense successfully in the 1970s and early '80s. The Cornhuskers, with Gill as the quarterbacks coach, used it to win national championships in the '90s.
Today, it is an oddity used by a few teams but Army stands firm. The Black Knights (2-4), nevertheless, moved away from the offense under coach Bobby Ross from 2004-06 and finished with a 9-25 record. When current coach Stan Brock took over the program at the beginning of 2007, he stayed with Ross's pro-style offense before shifting back to the option during the offseason.
"I knew we had to make some changes, I knew that we needed to win and I was going to do whatever it took to win," Brock said. "We sat down as a coaching staff and based on the criteria of we had to win now, we have to win with the players that we have, the players that we can recruit and the schedule that we were going to play."
Then Brock and his staff studied several option playbooks and game film.
"I watched film on Turner Gill," Brock said. "We watched every film that we could get a hold of. I have a full cabinet of playbooks from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas from all over the place. All the old Army and Navy playbooks. We did a lot of research. We brought coaches in, we went and saw coaches, we did tons of research."
Army has gotten the hang of the option the last three games. The Knights lost at Texas A&M (21-17) but won against Tulane (44-13) and Eastern Michigan (17-13). Over the last two weeks, Mooney has rushed for 416 yards and four touchdowns.
On paper, today's matchup is one of the more compelling games this weekend. UB is second in the Mid-American Conference and 39th nationally in stopping the run (115.5 yards per game), and Army is 10th nationally in rushing with a 241.8-yard average.
The Bulls have lost their last three games, including watching a 14-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate against Western Michigan in losing, 34-28, in overtime. "I reminded our team that we are still a good football team no matter what has happened the last three ball games," Gills said. "We have to be resilient and we have to be able to recover quickly. Our guys are ready to respond."