The University at Buffalo has been taking a crash course all week on how to defend Army’s triple-option offense.
The difficult exam comes at 7 p.m. Saturday at UB Stadium.
UB (0-2) will try to slow down the No. 2 rushing team in the nation. Army (3-0) has run the ball on 92 percent of its plays and averages 367 yards rushing a game.
The Black Knights are coming off a 66-14 thrashing of Texas-El Paso. Army had nine possessions and scored eight touchdowns and a field goal.
“It just showed how they will take advantage of one guy messing up,” said UB linebacker Jarrett Franklin. “All 11 guys on defense have to be running on all cylinders.”
UB is coming off a game in which its run defense was trampled for 352 yards by an athletically superior Nevada offense.
Army is not athletically superior to the Bulls. But UB’s defenders all must fill different scheme assignments than normal against Army.
Army’s triple option starts with the dive play up the middle to fullback Andy Davidson, who has 334 yards and six touchdowns in three games. The next option is the quarterback run off tackle. Army QBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Carter have combined for 312 yards and two TDs. The third option is the pitch wide.
Job No. 1 for the defense is containing the dive.
“Everything should start from inside out,” said UB defensive coordinator Brian Borland. “You have multiple players assigned to the first part of the option – the fullback. You don’t just have one guy assigned to any phase. You really gotta be solid from inside out.”
Somehow, the defensive tackles must pinch the “A” gaps on either side of the center. Instead of shooting upfield into the backfield, it’s critical the defensive tackles get their hands on the offensive linemen to slow them down and prevent them from getting a free release to block the middle linebacker.
“We have to really pay attention to our pad level, get our pads down and stay disciplined,” said UB defensive end Demone Harris. “Those guys play on their toes. You watch them on film, they’re very low. They come out with their cut blocks. They’re expert at what they do. It’s just pad level and knowing your assignment.”
Making the quarterback beat you is better for the defense than getting beaten by the dive all day.
“You have a guy assigned to the pitch, but you’ve got to have help to the pitch,” Borland said. “If you’re doing things right on the interior, that’s the way it should go.”
“You never want to have it be a case where whoever’s assigned to the pitch has to beat a block and make the tackle on the pitch by himself,” Borland said.
Invariably, however, safeties and cornerbacks will have to make some sure one-on-one tackles on the edge.
One preparation challenge is the scout team can’t run the offense as fast and precise as Army runs it during the game.
Franklin found that out in 2014, when UB visited Army and gave up 341 rushing yards in a 47-39 loss.
“Yeah, we’re getting looks from our scout guys, but it’s going to be a lot quicker in the game,” Franklin said. “I remember in 2014 how fast it was, and the pace was amped up. I feel like I’m a little more prepared for it in that sense.”
Forcing a turnover or two is another key. All the ball-handling required of the quarterback increases the risk of fumbles. Last year, Army went 2-10 and fumbled 38 times, losing 13. The Black Knights have not made one turnover this year. They’ve fumbled once but recovered it.
Borland has plenty of experience preparing for the triple option. He faced it in Wisconsin when his Whitewater team played UW-River Falls. But Borland’s UB predecessor, Lou Tepper, was expert in defending it, too. The problem is getting the players on the field to become expert in one week of practice.
“I feel confident we’re doing the right things,” Borland said. “It’s just in a small amount of time, can you get your guys to really understand all the things? And as disciplined as they are on offense, you have to be every bit as disciplined on defense.”