Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown is no stranger to the spread option, having faced it several times both as the head coach of Northeastern and at UMass as the defensive coordinator and head coach. His first meeting against Paul Johnson was in the 1998 I-AA championship game. UMass won, although with a 55-43 final score it’s tough to argue that defense had anything to do with it. UMass and Georgia Southern met again in the playoffs the following year, and this time Johnson got the upper hand in a 38-21 quarterfinal victory. GSU piled on 470 rushing yards that day, including 333 from Adrian Peterson alone. In his 4 years at Northeastern, Brown was 2-2 against Tim Stowers’ Rhode Island teams, including another 42-39 shootout. As head coach of UMass, Brown was 3-2 against some pretty bad Rhody teams. His success against spread option offenses has been sort of hit-or-miss.
Navy’s narrow 21-20 win over the Minutemen in 2006 is generally regarded as one of the hits. Brown’s team lost the game, but Navy’s offense was held to only 289 total yards– a fact that didn’t escape Bill Wagner:
Friedgen feels fortunate to be playing Navy in the season opener because that allows Maryland to spend more time working on the triple-option. While serving as head coach at Massachusetts in 2006, current Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown crafted a game-plan that limited Navy to 289 total yards. Brown had experience game-planning for the triple-option because UMass played Georgia Southern when Johnson was head coach.
“I feel very fortunate that Don has a lot of familiarity with the option,” Friedgen said.
One would assume that after holding the Mids to one of their least productive games of that season, Brown would borrow heavily from that same game plan this week. So let’s go back and take a look.
Brown’s game plan didn’t incorporate anything we haven’t seen before. He showed multiple defensive alignments in an effort to create confusion in blocking assignments, especially in the first half. To the Mids’ credit they didn’t have much of a problem dealing with all the different looks, which is probably why Brown just stuck with a 4-4 cover three in the 3rd quarter. It’s a good tactic, but a veteran offense can handle it.
The other thing that Brown did was attack the quarterback on almost every play. Navy ran a play-action pass on their first play from scrimmage, and UMass blitzed both outside linebackers. Brian Hampton took too long to get rid of the ball and was sacked.
This was play action, so the blitz was probably on whether Navy ran or passed on that play. Sure enough, the Minutemen kept blitzing against the option. This can be both good and bad. On one hand, it forces the quarterback to make a quicker decision; and if the play develops slowly, the backside LB can catch the quarterback from behind. On the other hand, even though the quarterback has to make a quicker read, it’s an obvious one to make. When the pitch key is charging like a bull, that’s a pretty good sign that you want to pitch the ball. For the first drive, that’s exactly what Hampton did, and the Mids marched down the field for a touchdown.
On the second play, Hampton didn’t even have to pitch because the pitch key completely whiffed.
The problems started on the next drive. Brown adjusted by having his blitzing linebacker look like he was taking the quarterback, but step into the pitch lane at the last second. It’s sort of like a mesh charge, but with the pitch instead of the mesh. Hampton didn’t recognize the new read, and his pitch was batted down. You might recall that the same thing happened a week earlier against East Carolina. Once it happened again, Hampton completely lost confidence in pitching the ball. The first play in the next clip is the pitch that was knocked down. The second play is a FB option where Hampton kept the ball when he should have pitched. The third is a triple option. Pitching the ball would have led to big gains on both plays, but instead Hampton was swallowed up.
With Hampton struggling, Coach Johnson turned to Kaipo. Even though he was only a sophomore, Kaipo was more comfortable in the offense and could make the right read. Here, he recognizes when to pitch on one play, and when to fake a pitch to throw off his key on the second play.
With UMass sending a linebacker into the backfield on almost every play, it opened up a cutback lane for the fullback on the FB trap.
UMass kicked a field goal to take a 17-14 lead in the 3rd quarter. Reggie Campbell took the ensuing kickoff return 72 yards to give the Mids a short field. They scored in three plays. The first two were fullback dives, which set up the quarterback keeper on the midline option on the third play.
And that’s pretty much what Navy did for the rest of the game. For the most part, it worked. Coach Johnson brought Brian Hampton back in and kept the ball between the tackles, running a mix of dives, keepers, and midline option. The problem was that Navy just couldn’t hold onto the ball. The Mids had seven fumbles against UMass. Two of those can be attributed to UMass knocking down option pitches. The rest, though, were just the result of sloppiness on Navy’s part. Both Hampton and Kaipo put the ball on the ground on their own to go along with rookie mistakes like fumbling at the mesh.
The question then is whether it was Don Brown’s game plan that stifled the Navy offense, or if it was the Navy offense that stifled the Navy offense. For the most part, it was the latter. Still, it wasn’t a bad plan. Other schools, most recently Hawaii, have seen success against Navy by using a variety of defensive fronts. Between that and the blitzing linebackers, we’ll know pretty quickly how much progress Ricky Dobbs has made in understanding the offense.