On Saturday, Indiana will face Navy and an offense that dates back nearly 30 years: a system known as the triple-option, which had its beginnings at Georgia Southern and made its way to Navy in the early 2000s.
It isnt too complicated on paper. The quarterback has three options after the snap. He can hand the ball off to a running back going up the middle, keep the ball and run or keep the ball and make a pitch to a slot player, or pitch man, who is trailing behind in case the defense closes on the quarterback.
Sounds easy enough to run. But stopping it is a different story.
I think its just an offense that, if you execute, it spreads the defense out, said Paul Johnson, who was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern when the triple-option was conceived. It puts people on islands, and it makes guys make plays in the open field.
Johnson brought the triple-option with him to Hawaii, where as offensive coordinator he helped the team break or match 160 school records. He then adapted the spread-option, which he brought to Navy as an offensive coordinator.
Stops at Southern and Navy as a head coach followed. Johnson led Georgia Southern to consecutive NCAA Division I-AA titles from 1999-2000 and five straight Southern Conference Championships. From there, after a 2-10 first season at Navy, Johnson led the Midshipmen to at least eight wins for the next five years. From 2005-07, Navy led the nation in rushing offense.
Now, Johnson is the head coach at Georgia Tech, a program that posted more than 40 points per game last season in the ACC using a mix of his patented option attacks.
In Week 1, the Yellow Jackets put up 70 points and 368 rushing yards on Elon using the potent option attack.
I think as a general rule, defenses have changed over the years to where its not so much systems as they play plays and play personnel, Johnson said. This is an old-style offense that has a system.
Its a system Navy has stuck by, and one that the Midshipmen execute to near-perfection every season.
The triple-option includes one running back nestled behind the quarterback and two pitch men lined up just off the tackles and a step off the ball. There is one wideout, a tight end and the usual five down linemen.
There are, of course, variations to the alignments and personnel, but the foundation of the basic triple-option play follows this method:
The quarterback receives the snap and eyes the player just outside the play-side tackle while putting the ball out to hand to the running back. He will read the defender to see if that player is crashing – moving to stop the run up the middle – or widening out to prevent the keeper.
From there, the quarterback acts accordingly. The player closest to the play-side tackle, usually a defensive end, will be unblocked because that tackle swings out to block the next man downfield, who is usually an outside linebacker.
Whether that player is taken on or advances on the quarterback gives the quarterback his pitch read. If hes in trouble, he tosses it out to the pitch man. If not, he keeps it.
Simple. Except not at all.
The offense, it has evolved, but honestly its still the basics; its still the same principles, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. It makes you play responsibility football. Some guys who are really great athletes, they cant be great athletes because they have to sit there and they got responsibilities they have to play. They have to play the dive, the pitch and the quarterback.
It has proven effective at all levels. In the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers ran a lot of triple-option last season, Johnson said, as did the Washington Redskins.
With the right personnel, it can be lethal. Triple-option plays give the offense a numbers advantage on the play side and take at least one defender out of the equation.
The Midshipmen can use play-action out of the triple-option, use their pitch men as slot receivers and vary up looks in many other ways. Navy needs that, Jasper said, because it doesnt get the best athletes or recruited players.
It really just helps us be competitive, he said. Were not going to go into the I and give it to some tailback or go four wide and try to throw the ball 80 times a game or something like that to a bunch of really great wideouts. Were going to do what fits our personnel.
Navy did that last season, and while it was outmanned and outgunned, as Jasper put it, the team still went 8-5, including a 31-30 win against the Hoosiers.
The triple-option also allows Navy to control the flow of the game. IU coach Kevin Wilson saw that spoil his teams chances last season.
The clock is going to continually move, Wilson said. The negatives get magnified because you dont get as many swings. You dont get as many at-bats.
Thats what Navy wants. The Midshipmen grind out opponents and take away big plays defensively, hoping the other team will make a mistake – a three-and-out here, a missed tackle there. That gives Navy a chance.
More often than not, it capitalizes on those chances.
Theyre going to keep playing and hope that you screw up, Wilson said. It just stresses you out.
IU has been trying to quell that concern by prepping for Navy since spring, even in the offseason and some during camp. The Hoosiers opened last Thursday against Indiana State in part to give themselves a couple more days of prep for the Midshipmen.
Its a good football play, Johnson said. If teams had caught up and you couldnt do it anymore, then clearly, we would have tried to do something else.