Football commentary from national outlets, for the most part, sucks. Whether in print or over-the-air, discussion of the game consists primarily of clichés and conventional wisdom regurgitation being passed off as insight. There’s a reason for this. It’s hard enough to be knowledgeable and detailed when discussing one program. When there’s over 100 in the entire FBS, there’s no way anyone can speak with authority on all of them. The talking heads can’t tell their audience that, of course, so instead they give us talking points. It doesn’t matter how true they are; they just have to make you sound smart. Repeat them enough, and they’ll be accepted as fact.
When you’re a fan of an option football team, you’re quite familiar with the talking points. Tell me if you’ve heard this before:
“Defending this offense is all about assignment football. You need one man on the dive, one man on the quarterback, and one man on the pitch. And you need to hit the quarterback on every play. If you do that, you can get them off schedule, and this offense isn’t built for 3rd & long. It’s not a quick-strike offense, so if you get an early lead you can force them to throw the ball, which isn’t their strength. It’s not an offense designed to come from behind.”
Yeah, we might’ve heard that once or twice or every day.
You get used to it. Hey, some of it is sort of true in a way. I mean, the offense isn’t built for 3rd & long. Of course, that’s true about every offense; designing an offense for 3rd & long is a pretty bold strategy, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It all makes for irritating in-game analysis, but after a while you just tune it out or try to get the online radio stream to sync up with your TV.
My favorite clichés are the ones that question whether or not option offenses are “real football.” You know the ones I’m talking about. The option is just a “gimmick.” It’s a “high school offense.” And my personal favorite: “That offense would never work in the SEC.”
Ah yes, the SEC; another lightning rod for clichés. In this case, the players in that conference are so big and strong and blessed with SEC SPEED that Xs & Os just don’t apply. Only certain offenses will work against those powerful SEC defenses, and if it’s not “big boy football,” then don’t bother. People used to say that about any spread offense, right up until Florida and Auburn combined for 3 national championships running… spread offenses. Nevertheless, people still cling to the idea that there are offensive schemes that won’t work in the SEC even though they have been proven everywhere else. The spread option in the style of Navy and Georgia Tech is definitely one of them. SEC defenses just have too much speed for an option team to have a chance, right? Sure, Navy beat Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech beat Mississippi State, but those were just flukes. They’d never be able to do that week after week. And if some FCS team running an offense like that played an SEC school, just imagine how ugly it would get!
Except that last year, it wasn’t. Well, at least not for Georgia Southern. The Eagles ran for 429 yards on the way to a 26-20 victory over Florida. It was a great win for cliché haters everywhere. It also went a long way toward making Jeff Monken Army’s #1 target, which is why we’re taking a look back at the game during Army Week.
Perhaps the most remarkable part about this game is that it wasn’t a Georgia Southern powerhouse that won it. If this was one of the several championship-caliber teams to come out of Statesboro, maybe it would be easier to accept the result. But the Eagles were only 6-4 coming into the game; decent, but probably the worst team during Monken’s tenure. Not that it was a great Florida team either, but if you believe the hype that the SEC gets, even below-average SEC teams should pulverize 6-4 FCS squads. Besides, Florida’s problems were almost entirely on offense. The defense was pretty good, and Will Muschamp is considered one of the top defensive coaches in college football. According to conventional wisdom, that gimmick offense shouldn’t have had a chance.
Monken and offensive coordinator Brent Davis didn’t really have much to go on in preparing for this game. DJ Durkin, Florida’s defensive coordinator, was promoted from his previous job as linebackers coach and hadn’t run a defense before. Muschamp had, obviously, but he didn’t face an offense like Georgia Southern’s in his time in the SEC and Big 12. When you don’t have much film on a defense and aren’t sure how they’ll line up, it’s common to call a fullback dive on the first play. It looks like the option, so you’ll get to see what you’re dealing with without the risk of making a bad read. That’s what Georgia Southern did, and right away you could see what Florida’s plan was.
Florida used both 4- and 5-man fronts during the game, but the secondary did the same thing regardless of way the front 7 lined up. The Gators had their safeties playing man-to-man with the slotbacks, figuring the slot’s motion would lead them in the direction of the play. As Navy fans, we’ve seen this defense a few times, most notably against Missouri and ECU. You know how those games went.
Davis recognized this defense right away and got to work. There are several ways to counter it, but they all boil down to two basic things: using misdirection to get the safeties moving the wrong way, and using different formations to give yourself a numbers advantage. The first thing that Davis did incorporated a bit of both. He had the offense line up in trips, then sent the outside slotback in motion back toward the middle of the formation. At the snap, the motion slot would reverse pivot and become the pitch man going the other way. Essentially, this is no different than if the slot had gone in regular tail motion from the other side of the formation. Running the triple this way, though, caused the safeties to overreact to the motion and had them moving the wrong way at the snap.
On the second play, you might notice that the backside safety didn’t bite quite as much on the motion and ended up making the tackle. It might’ve been after an 8-yard gain, but he made the tackle nevertheless. At that point, Davis started mixing in a few other things, all with the same idea of getting the safeties out of position. By using twirl motion, he forced the backside safety to have to read the play, preventing him from getting a jump in the right direction:
Davis also used trips formations to give the offense a numbers advantage. With the safeties aligned to the slotbacks, he was able to run a counter FB option the other way with a pulling guard blocking #1. That left #2 to cover both the QB and FB with no run support safety behind him.
Davis also made a great call on an end-around, using an option look to get the safeties thinking the play was going one way while handing off to the would-be playside A-back going the other way:
Other than having the safeties spying the slotbacks, the only other tactic that Florida used was the cross charge, a stunt where #1 and #2 in the count exchange responsibilities in an effort to trick the quarterback into making the wrong read. It worked a couple of times (we’ll get into that in a second), but for the most part the offense handled it well. One counter to this was to take the FB read out of the equation entirely, running the double option and having the fullback block some of the backside pursuit. By running this play out of the twins formation, the inside receiver was also able to help with that. It didn’t matter that the defense brought an extra safety over, since he was unblocked as the pitch key.
On the second play, Georgia Southern went ahead and ran the triple out of the same formation. The quarterback made the right read. This time, the PSA blocked the safety, since the safety was #3 in the count. Instead of the PSA, it was the playside tackle responsible for blocking the backside safety.
It was a boom or bust day for the Georgia Southern offense. They averaged nearly 8 yards per carry, but that average consisted of a mix of really big plays and complete disasters, with 2 turnovers in the first half. The combination of really good and really bad meant that there weren’t any long, clock-eating drives for most of the game; 6 of the Eagles’ first 8 drives were 2:36 or less. As the game entered the 4th quarter, Georgia Southern tried to hold onto the ball a bit longer to bleed the clock and reduce the number of chances that Florida would have to score. After not using the fullback for most of the game, Davis started using designed dives more to grind it out. It worked for a while, as the Eagles went 44 yards on 9 plays to run 5:17 off the clock. The drive stalled when the offense wasn’t able to convert on 4th & short, though, and Florida was able to tie the game on their next possession.
Fortunately for Georgia Southern, they had one more trick up their sleeve to take advantage of Florida’s over-pursuit. On the ensuing possession, the Eagles ran the zone dive. The entire defense followed the tail motion and the direction of the offensive line after the snap. When the fullback was able to cut back against the grain, there was nobody there to stop him.
That set up the game’s final touchdown, which Georgia Southern scored on a toss sweep. I’m not sure why, but Florida had 9 defenders in the box on this play. Usually you run the toss when the safeties are lined up inside the tackles, but on this play, there were no safeties. The toss gets the ball to the perimeter quickly, and without any safeties there weren’t any defenders with a good angle to the ballcarrier. As a bonus, you had a defensive back running to the other side of the field before the play to cover an ineligible receiver.
And that was that. Georgia Southern went on to win, 26-20.
With Monken and Davis now at Army, are there any takeaways from this game that might apply to Saturday? Probably not, although I did notice a couple of quirks that might be relevant. I mentioned earlier that Florida’s use of the cross charge/EZ stunt worked a couple of times. When it did, it wasn’t because the quarterback missed his read. Take a look at this next play. You can see the outside linebacker playing the fullback inside, essentially becoming the dive key. The DE squats and becomes the pitch key. But if he’s the pitch key, shouldn’t he be left unblocked? That’s not what happens here, though. Instead, he’s blocked by the playside tackle. The problem is that by having the PST block the DE, he doesn’t carry out his usual assignment on the triple, which is to block pursuit coming from behind the play from either the MLB or the backside safety. The safety is exactly who blows up the play:
So what happened here? There are three possibilities. One, the PST just screwed up his assignment. I don’t think that’s the case, though. This happened more than once, and it certainly looked like it was designed that way. So does that mean it was just bad play design? Again, that’s pretty unlikely with a veteran coaching staff. My guess as to what happened here is that Georgia Southern had a young quarterback who might have been struggling making the right read on this stunt. By blocking the DE, you essentially gave the QB a pitch read every time, making things easier for him. Maybe it would’ve worked if the safeties were still biting on the misdirection, but after a few plays in that formation they seemed to have figured out what was going on.
Either way, I don’t know if there is much here that will apply to Saturday. Angel Santiago has been making this read for a while and probably knows it well enough that the coaches don’t have to cover for him. AJ Schurr isn’t as good with his reads, but Coach Green doesn’t like to use too many stunts like this against option teams since they open up other opportunities for the offense. This was probably a one-time event.
The other thing I noticed involved Georgia Southern’s use of twirl motion. The one problem with twirl motion is that the pitch man doesn’t get his usual head start on the play, which changes the pitch relationship between him and the quarterback. There isn’t as much separation between the two. To correct this, Georgia Southern would line up with the pitch man in the backfield. This way, he has a head start at the snap closer to what he’d have if he had gone in tail motion. The blocking slotback went in twirl motion as usual. It was less of a “spread” formation and more like a “broken bone.”
Does this formation tip the defense off to the direction of the play? Maybe. It certainly could have in this game, but this is just one game. To answer the question you’d have to see how Davis used this formation in other games, too. Did he only use it when the play called for twirl motion? If so, then maybe this is a little something to keep an eye out for. Of course, that’s assuming Army would have a reason to use twirl motion against Navy, which might not be the case given Coach Green’s usual strategy.
Even if there’s nothing film-wise from this game that applies to Saturday, we can at least get a sense of what Army saw in Jeff Monken that made him their first choice. He had a lot of success in Statesboro, winning 10+ games 3 times and leading each of those teams deep into the FCS playoffs. As a team that was transitioning to the FBS, Monken wasn’t allowed to lead his last team to the playoffs. He did, however, do the next best thing: he led them out of the FCS in style.