I’m home alone right now, and great googly moogly is it boring around here. My wife is out of town on some urgent family business, so my personal interaction with others has been limited to pushing my cat down every time he climbs up onto my keyboard. That’s not to say that there isn’t any excitement, though. I mean, last week I came home from work one day to discover that the cat had opened the door to the garage, and the dog had learned how to escape from his crate. The two of them proceeded to find the bag of dog food that we keep in the garage, rip it open, engorge themselves, then leave heaping piles of crap all over the carpet. VROOM VROOM DER PARTY STARTER. The thought of an encore makes me feel all tingly.
As exciting as that was, I still look for other, less odorous, ways to entertain myself. Rather than doing anything productive with my free time, my favorite pastime in this situation is watching old games. It’s like my own little ESPN Classic, but without the bowling or world’s strongest man competitions. It’s good to calibrate my memory whenever I get the chance; it’s sort of amazing how the things you think you remember can differ from what actually happened in a game. It’s fun to see players and plays I haven’t thought about in a while, too. The best part about revisiting old games is being able to look at them with a critical eye, but without the inherent emotional bias that you have when watching it live.
Emotional bias really wasn’t a problem for the first game I decided to take a look at– last season’s Georgia Tech-Georgia game. I mean, I wanted Georgia Tech to win, of course, but a loss wouldn’t have had the same marriage-jeopardizing implications for me that most Navy losses do. I know, I know… Georgia Tech again. Blah blah blah. But even if you’re sick of talking about them, there’s still plenty to learn from watching them. They’re like an offensive laboratory for us. It’s not because of what they’re doing themselves, necessarily; I don’t think they’re doing much that we haven’t seen before, although the frequency with which they do a few things is a bit different. It’s really about the opportunity to see how a different group of defenses line up and try to stop the spread option, and to see if there’s any difference in how common opponents (like Duke) try to defend the two teams. I’m kicking myself right now for not having recorded more Tech games this year, but oh well. I’ll be sure to get their games that don’t conflict with Navy’s next year.
Anyway, enough talk of poop and regret. More talk about football. As I was rewatching the game, I took notes on a couple of items that I thought would be of interest to Navy fans. I began this post with the intention of highlighting only those things, but as I got going I figured I might as well break down the whole game like I would any other. In the process of doing so, I was reminded of plays we’ve seen in Navy games past. I decided to go ahead and include that stuff too. It makes for one long, sprawling post. But hey, it just gives us more to talk about in the middle of the summer, right? So off we go.
The spread option, as run by Paul Johnson and Ivin Jasper, is not the wishbone. While you and I realize that, coaches facing it for the first time have a tendency to prepare for it as if they were scheming against 1979 Oklahoma. Maybe it has to do with the sheer difficulty of game planning in general. Think about what coaches have to go through; you practice all week, play on Saturday, then get right back to work on Sunday watching film and putting together a game plan that you have to start installing on Monday. That’s not much time for coaches to sit around and debate strategy while puffing cigars and sipping brandy down at the club. No, when it comes to coaching college football, time management is everything. You and I might be able to ponder these things for a week leading up to a game, but coaches have to have their plan straight by the time they start practice. The wishbone was option-based. Johnson & Jasper’s spread is option-based. There are well-established defensive strategies for the wishbone, so why not use one of those? What a time saver! I mean, how different can they be? Plenty different, as Georgia found out.
Fundamentally, the mechanics of your basic triple option play are the same whether you’re running it out of the wishbone, I-formation, spread, or whatever. Each of these formations, however, imply different overall philosophies. The underlying theme of the wishbone– bringing blockers to the point of attack to support a power running game– is very different than that of the spread. In the spread, you want to stretch the defense, both vertically and from sideline to sideline, in order to create running lanes. You might think these are just platitudes, but they aren’t; this difference, coupled with the threat of the pass, is why wishbone defenses don’t work against the spread option. The spread allows an offensive coordinator to use a greater variety of formations in order to create the space he wants for his ballcarriers. That advantage played a big part in Georgia Tech’s win over Georgia.
Let’s take a look at how the Bulldogs lined up.
This is the first play of the game. Tech lined up in the base spread. Georgia brought a safety up in run support as a de facto fourth linebacker, resulting in a 4-4 look. The free safety lined up in the middle of the field. His assignment was to take the pitch man, which is usually the tail motion A-back. He’d start moving towards the line of scrimmage as soon as he saw the tail motion. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. We’ve seen it several times, most recently against Rutgers last season. This is Dave Wannstedt’s wishbone defense.
In victories over Oklahoma in 1986 and 1987, Wannstedt relied on a speedy nose guard to disrupt the fullback up the middle.
The middle linebackers flowed to the side opposite the nose guard. And the outside defenders used their speed to focus only on the run.
It’s not unlike the famed “backbone” defense, but Wannstedt’s influence is of particular interest here. As Christian Swezey noted back in 2007, Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator at Miami from 1986-1988. In those years, the Hurricanes defeated Oklahoma and Nebraska by a combined score of 71-33 using these defensive principles. In 1986, former Miami defensive back Willie Martinez worked for Wannstedt as a graduate assistant… The same Willie Martinez who is now the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Martinez took those lessons he learned while coaching at Miami and tried to apply them to stopping Georgia Tech.
So let’s take a look at the plan in action.
You can see the safety spying the tail motion slotback and blowing up the play. The playside slotback’s responsibility here is to load from the linebacker to the safety. What that means is that his first responsibility is to block the first playside LB not in the count. If that linebacker plays the fullback dive– like he does on this play– then the A-back moves on to block the safety. If the A-back makes the right block here, this play is probably a touchdown. Instead, it’s only a gain of 2 yards. Such is the fine line between glory and disaster in football.
Coach Johnson made the exact same call on the next play. Only this time, he has the playside A-back run right at the safety. The result is a big ol’ gain:
Something else to notice here is the formation. By lining up both wide receivers on the short side of the field, Coach Johnson accomplished two things. First, he gave the slotbacks a lot of room to run. By adjusting to block the safety, you leave yourself vulnerable if the PSLB decides to play the pitch instead of the fullback. Moving both WRs to the short side of the field overcomes this problem; now that there’s no cornerback to worry about on the wide side of the field, the slotback is free to run all the way to the sideline. This gives him the ability to outrun any inside-out linebacker pursuit and turn upfield. If your A-backs aren’t faster than the other guy’s linebackers, then you have a whole different set of problems.
The other thing Johnson achieved from the twins formation was a bit of sleight of hand. The cornerback followed the WR to the other side of the field to cover him. But the inside receiver in the formation was ineligible! Both receivers are on the line of scrimmage; only the one on the outside is eligible. The defense had a CB covering someone who wasn’t even allowed to catch a forward pass. In essence, the formation took a defender out of the play without even having to block him. Martinez never adjusted.
The A-back blocking the safety, plus some bad tackling on Georgia’s part, also led to Tech’s last touchdown:
The slots weren’t the only ones tasked with blocking the safety; Johnson was able to use the respect that Georgia was giving Demaryius Thomas to his advantage. With the free safety playing the run almost exclusively, Johnson knew that the cornerbacks would be in man coverage and couldn’t blitz. To take advantage of this, Johnson ran the triple option out of the trips formation. The formation forced the Georgia defense to shift to account for the three receivers on one side. The option was run in the opposite direction. There was no slotback on that side of the formation to block the safety; instead, the job fell to the wide receiver. Usually the receiver would be tasked with blocking the cornerback, but with the corner committed to playing man-to-man defense on the WR, that wasn’t necessary. The corner, in covering his assignment, just followed the receiver right on into the charging safety. In effect, one player (the WR) blocked two defenders.
Take a look at these two plays. In the first play, the corner played relatively loose coverage. He was able to adjust and make the tackle, but not before the slotback was able to run for a 7-yard gain and a first down. On the second play, the corner tried to jam Demaryius Thomas at the line of scrimmage. This time, he wasn’t able to adjust to the play; he gets caught up in the traffic in the middle of the field. With nobody left to tackle the pitch man, it’s off to the races.
Pay particular attention to the view from the end zone. Try pausing the video at the moment the A-back catches the pitch. Look at the incredible amount of unoccupied territory in front of him. This is the very definition of using your formation to create running lanes for your playmakers. In this case, the running lane is about the size of a small national park. That doesn’t happen in the wishbone.
If this seems sort of familiar to you, it should. Ivin Jasper did something similar against Rutgers. You’ll remember how in that game, Jasper made extensive use of the unbalanced line. There was a reason for that. In the 54-21 blowout of the Scarlet Knights back in 2004, the unbalanced line was a big part of the Mids’ offensive success. Rutgers overcompensated for the heavy side of the formation, and left the wide receiver– lined up as a tackle on the other side of the formation– uncovered. But by rule, Corey Dryden was still an eligible receiver, and the Mids made Rutgers pay for ignoring him:
In this year’s game, Greg Schiano made sure to cover the “tackle,” but he still overshifted to the heavy side. Jasper took advantage of that by running the other way. The cornerback still had to be accounted for, though. Jasper’s adjustment was for the WR-turned-tackle to block the CB on the snap, then release him and block the safety. It resulted in 5-7 yard gains on plays that would have otherwise been stopped at the line of scrimmage.
We’ve seen a lot of different ways to attack this defense over the years. If you look at the safety overplaying the run and think to yourself, “Hey, the play-action pass should be wide open,” well, you’re right. In the first play against Wannstedt’s own Pitt team in 2007, Coach Johnson called a pass. With the safety following the tail motion slotback one way, O.J. Washington came on a crossing pattern the other way.
Against Rutgers, Coach Jasper called a similar play:
The Navy coordinator also added a new wrinkle, sending Tyree Barnes on a post-corner route. The safety followed the tail motion, and fell down when he ran into Tyree while trying to adjust to the play action.
In the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl, Colorado State came out in the same defense. On Navy’s first play from scrimmage, the safety follows the tail motion and is caught with his eyes in the backfield as Reggie Campbell ran right by. (Lamar Owens also makes one hell of a pass with a defender at his knees.)
Now, with the smorgasbord of effective pass plays available to him, why didn’t Coach Johnson throw the ball much against Georgia? He called a pass on his first play, and took a shot at the endzone on one fourth down play early on, but other than that he didn’t really try for the home run. Why not? I’ll answer that question with a quick story from Johnson’s first stint at Navy as offensive coordinator.
Navy took on Air Force in Colorado Springs in 1996. It was a huge game; the Mids were having their best season in years, and came into the game with their best chance to knock off the Falcons for only the second time since 1981. Fairly early in the first half, Navy fullback Omar Nelson came over to the sideline after a drive and told Johnson that on plays where they would fake running him off tackle, he’d run past the line untouched. Charlie Weatherbie, the head coach at the time, wanted to start running Nelson off tackle on the next drive. Johnson said no; he’d “save it for when he needed it.” It ended up being a tight, fairly low-scoring game. With a little less than two minutes left in the game and the score tied at 17, Navy got the ball on their own 35. It was then that Johnson cashed in his chips. The first play of the drive was a give to Nelson off tackle. The Navy fullback took the handoff, ran off of the right tackle, then worked his way back across the field. The play went for 51 yards and set up what would be the game-winning field goal with nine seconds left. Navy won, 20-17.
That story tells you a lot about how Paul Johnson manages a game. Just because you can call a play that will work, that doesn’t mean that you should. It has to be the right time. So what’s the right time? For Johnson, it’s whenever he feels like he can put a game away. Sometimes that comes at the end of the game, like the Air Force example. Sometimes, if he can jump to an early lead against a heavily-favored opponent, he’ll call that play in an attempt to break their spirits by going up by multiple scores. But until he’s put in these kinds of situations, Coach Johnson usually prefers not to tip his hand. The 2007 Army game is a great example; Army’s defense was leaving them vulnerable to all kinds of things, but Johnson didn’t feel compelled to make them pay for it. Navy’s defense and special teams were dominating, so there was no need. It might have been the most conservative five-touchdown victory in history.
This brings me to the first point I originally wanted to bring up. Coach Jasper has been criticized by some for being too conservative, which I think is unfair. People remember Paul Johnson as some mad scientist that created frankenplays and unleashed them on unsuspecting townspeople every week, but that isn’t true. Trick plays and big passes are what we remember, but all things considered, Johnson was pretty conservative himself. He’d make his adjustments, but he didn’t get crazy with passing or trick plays until he felt he could achieve maximum effect. Sure, he liked to catch defenses off guard once in a while by throwing the ball on his first posession of the game. But the Mids scored on the first drive of almost every game in 2008 without opening with a pass, so I don’t see why anyone would complain about not passing in that situation. Looking back at the season, I don’t know if Paul Johnson would’ve been any less conservative than Jasper. Most of Navy’s games were pretty tight contests. That, plus having to juggle three quarterbacks and four offensive tackles all year, doesn’t really lend itself to going nuts with the playcalling. With a more stable situation at both positions in 2009, I’d be willing to bet that Navy’s total pass attempts are closer to their 2003-2007 numbers.
Moving right along… Another play that we’ve seen used extensively against this defense is the fullback dive out of toss sweep motion. By spying on the tail motion, the safety abandons the middle of the field. If the blocking is good enough up front, there’s nobody left to stop the fullback if he gets past the second level.
The key part there is “if the blocking is good enough.” We didn’t see Georgia Tech run this play. In what was probably a harbinger of things to come against LSU, Tech was getting dominated at the line of scrimmage. One guard in particular (who shall remain nameless, mostly because I have no idea who the hell plays guard for Georgia Tech) had a horrible day.
Gotta get that pad level down, big fella. There were better examples than this, but I don’t want to make a montage of some poor kid’s screwups. It’s beside the point I wanted to make anyway. More important for Navy fans than Tech’s o-line problems is what Coach Johnson was able to do to compensate.
You hear a lot of talk about “establishing the fullback” in this offense. It’s important because you put the most pressure on a defense when you force them to respect all three elements of the option. But establishing the fullback is a lot easier said than done when the interior of your offensive line is being dominated. If you have the right kind of fullback, though, you can run around your problems rather than through them.
That brings me to point number two. Some Navy fans look at Alex Teich and Vince Murray with a bit of concern. The Mids have had some big dudes at B-back; Kyle Eckel, Adam Ballard, and Eric Kettani all checked in between 230 and 240 pounds. Teich and Murray only weigh 212 and 217, respectively. They’re physically different players, and it makes fans wonder if they’ll be effective. The question is what makes for the ideal fullback in this system. Because of our experience, Navy fans tend to favor more traditional wishbone-style fullbacks; big, north-south runners that can move a pile. The problem with that style of runner, though, is that you’re pretty much committed to running between the tackles with them. With Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech faces no such limitation. Most of the biggest fullback carries of the day came off of the pitch.
Most, but not all.
This could have easily been a blown play. The playside tackle actually blocked the wrong guy, leaving a linebacker unblocked. Jonathan Dwyer didn’t try to meet the guy head-on and push him backwards; instead, he was able to sidestep the LB, then do it again in the secondary, and trot in for the touchdown. The best fullbacks in this offense don’t move piles; they avoid them. As big as Navy’s fullbacks have been, they didn’t play their best football until they learned that lesson (especially Eckel). Now, it’s completely unfair to expect Alex Teich to step in and play like the ACC offensive player of the year, but there’s no reason to think he can’t be as effective as his predecessors at Navy. With the potential to dust off some of the lesser-used areas of the playbook, it might just look a little different.
Don’t get me wrong; at 6-0, 235, Dwyer is no microback. But he doesn’t use his size to bowl people over; he uses his quickness to make them miss. Alex Teich can succeed with the same approach.
There’s one more thing I wanted to point out. Take a look at this play:
It looks like a well-defended option play that wasn’t going anywhere. But if Kaipo was the quarterback, it would have been a touchdown. One of the things we’ve talked about a lot around here is quarterback development.
Young quarterbacks in the spread tend to focus on very specific reads. They zero in on their keys and react to what those keys do. Those are the basics. But over time and repetition, the quarterback gains a better understanding of the big picture. He is able to see beyond his keys to understand how to exploit the weaknesses in certain defensive alignments.
This play is a perfect example of what I was talking about. Here’s the view from the end zone:
The safety is spying on the pitch man, so we already know he’s moving toward the sideline at full speed. Meanwhile, the quarterback’s pitch key hasn’t committed one way or the other. Now, let’s move ahead a couple frames.
All the quarterback had to do was look at the pitch man and lift his arm, and the pitch key shifted his hips and turned to cover the pitch. If the quarterback had faked the pitch, he would’ve had a clear path to the end zone. Instead, he pitched the ball for a modest gain. These are the little things that you lose when an experienced guy like Kaipo graduates. Not that Ricky won’t develop, but it takes time. Of course, Kaipo only played so much last year anyway, so it’s not like we’d be able to tell too much. Just keep this in mind before you guys fire up the “bench Ricky” talk.
So what was my point when I started this rambling? I can’t remember.
Anyway, there are lessons to be learned here. There’s no one defensive scheme that will shut down this offense. Some schemes, however, are a lot worse than others. Defend this offense like it’s the wishbone, and get burned. If it wasn’t for penalties and mistakes, Georgia Tech probably would’ve scored a lot more. Not that it mattered in the end.
(By the way… This is exactly how a certain former Youngstown State coach defended this offense once upon a time. But we’ll talk about that later.)