University at Buffalo football coach Lance Leipold likens defending Army’s triple-option offense to playing in a chess match. One side can almost always make a counter move.
UB defensive coordinator Brian Borland called it “a fistfight in a phone booth.”
What is Bulls linebacker Khalil Hodge's analogy?
“It’s like getting punched in the face.”
“The speed of the triple-option offense, especially the way Army runs it, it’s a lot different than when you see it in practice,” Hodge said. “The first time, that first drive in an actual game, it’s like a whirlwind.”
The Bulls (4-0) host Army (2-2) at noon Saturday at UB Stadium. UB has to prepare for a physical, speedy offense that gives a quarterback three options: hand off the ball to the fullback or the tailback, keep the ball and run, or pass the ball.
But there are plenty of moving parts that create misdirection within the triple option. Linemen and backs go one way, but the ball goes in another. That confounds opposing defenses.
“There’s any number of things that can happen on the same play,” Borland said. “It all depends on what the defense does. Theoretically, if you do everything correctly, you can defend it. If one person has a job to do and doesn’t, (Army) will be able to take advantage of it.”
Only a handful of FBS schools, including Army, Navy, Air Force, New Mexico, Georgia Tech and Tulane, run the offense, which is predicated on speed, discipline and misdirection.
“It’s a very systematic offense,” said Scott Jazdzewski, founder of the Flexbone Association, which provides instruction on the offense to high school programs. “That gives a team that may have less talent than the opposition a chance to compete and a chance to win.
“It takes a disciplined group of people to run it, and that’s why it’s run so well at the service academies. They don’t need size requirements or prototypical linemen to run the schemes you need to run in college football.”
It also can be intimidating. Borland chuckled at a mention of the offense earlier this week, then recalled a time he turned down a coaching job early in his career. He didn’t want to prepare for an opponent that ran the triple option.
Saturday will be the third time in three years that Borland and the Bulls will defend the intricate offense.
“You need to apply the everyday techniques, but against a specific scheme that is different than a lot of peoples’ scheme is,” Borland said. “You tell the defenders, ‘You have a job, you have a technique, you have an alignment, you have an assignment. Do that the best that you can.' If everybody does that, we’re going to be okay.”
Athletes who play in a triple-option offense may not be the biggest, quickest or strongest, but they tend to have a sense of discipline, and buy into the understanding that every moving part has to do its job in order for the offense to operate.
Opposing defenses must do the same.
“That’s an offense where they’re waiting for you to make a mistake,” Hodge said. “And if you don’t make a mistake, you stay disciplined and you do what you need to do, it’s an offense that can to be stopped. But if you don’t trust your eyes, fall back on your training, that’s when things can kind of get chaotic."
Defensive coaches devote weeks to strategize against the triple option. Borland estimates the Bulls used 800 reps in one year (including spring practice and fall camp) to prepare for Army’s scheme. Even in practices, UB’s defense takes 15-minute segments on plays solely run by Army.
“Our defense understands the huge challenge of having to be assignment-sound,” Leipold said. “That offense, because of what they do, they’re very good at complementing all the plays. It’s not just stopping one play. They’ve got another answer to when you do something.”
As the Bulls prepare to face the Black Knights, the scout team can simulate the movement and the misdirection, but only to a certain point. Speed, Hodge said, can’t be replicated.
“It’s relentless,” Borland said. “They keep coming at you, keep coming at you and they try to wear you out to get you just to say, ‘No mas.’ ”
A near-upset in Norman
Army lost 28-21 in overtime to No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday in Norman, Okla., but Army’s offense held the ball for 44 minutes, 41 seconds, and four of its eight drives were at least 16 plays and/or 65 yards.
“You have to maximize your possessions (against Army),” Leipold said. “Because there’s not going to be as many.”
What jumped out to Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was Army’s ability to convert on third down; Army was 13 for 21 and ranks 15th nationally (35-for-68, 51.47 percent) in third-down conversions.
“We knew the third and shorts were always going to be tough,” Stoops said Saturday. “Some of the third downs we didn’t play as well, but Army’s a great team. They run that thing extremely well. They’ve got a little bit of movement inside on the dive and the belly play. They just kind of kept hitting it for three and four (yards), and it gets them into a fourth down. … So, it’s tough.
“They’re very courageous, and they’re not scared of anything, and they played that way tonight. Just frustrating we couldn’t get more stops to get the ball. They hold the ball for 45 minutes. They’ve been averaging 40. Those extra five minutes mean critical possessions for our offense. That’s probably the most frustrating point of it all – just not getting enough possessions for our offense.”
How to slow Army
Four teams that run the triple option are among the nation’s top 10 rushing teams: Navy (first, 355.75 yards), Georgia Tech (third, 331.0 yards), Army (fourth, 314.75 yards) and Air Force (sixth, 296.0 yards). The Black Knights face a UB run defense that has allowed an average of 143 rushing yards.
Hodge knows that defending the triple option is assignment- and decision-based. Stray from your assignment as a defender, and it could open a huge hole that the opposition can exploit.
As the Bulls prepare for their sixth all-time meeting with the Black Knights, Hodge offers his teammates advice.
“We all have different pieces to the puzzle,” Hodge said. “You’re a part of the puzzle. You have to do your assignment down to a ‘T.’ If my assignment is to watch the quarterback or watch the fullback, I have to do that regardless of what’s going on around me. No matter what misdirection is going on, if I focus on my assignment or my job, that’s how you beat Army."