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A beginner’s guide to Army’s triple option offensive attack

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Before you throw expectations on the Michigan defense, understand what they’re up against this weekend, first.

NCAA Football: Rice at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes when fans discuss the sport of football, there are a lot of buzzwords that get thrown around. We see it already with Michigan in terms of RPOs, crossing routes, etc. A lot of people say it, and sort of know what it is in concept, but do not fully understand what it is.

Saturday should be another buzzword game for the casual college football fan with the Army Black Knights coming into town, who run one of the most unorthodox offensive concepts in the sport — the triple option offense. We will not get too schematic here as to not fry your brain circuits, but it will at least give you an understanding of what Michigan has been game-planning for since the spring.

Because these service academies often do not have the athletes or size that some of their big-time opponents do, this is an offense that helps them control the clock and grind out games, but also can put them at a disadvantage late in the game if they are trailing and need a quick score of some sort. These types of schools and offenses seek to limit your offensive drives by keeping you on the sideline, which makes it so incredibly important to execute when you do have the football.

As defensive line coach Shaun Nua told the Michigan media on Wednesday:

“This offense, they want three yards. Three yards is a win for them. First down is a huge win to them. It’s no secret. They know it, we know it. We’ve just gotta get them off the field as fast as we can and get the ball back to our offense.”

Basically, Army wins by keeping you off the field with a “death by a million papercuts” approach.

Army ran 64 offensive plays in its opening 14-7 win over Rice, 56 of which were rushing attempts. The only threw the ball eight times. This gives you an idea of what the Wolverines are dealing with on Saturday. It is not just a gimmick, either, as the Black Knights rode this to an 11-2 record last season and won 10 games the year before.

It is not as simple as just running the ball down your throat, though, as you’ll see the rest of the way here.

In order to understand what Army wants to do, let us first look at the option boiled down to its simplest form.

What is an option offense?

In all actuality, an option offense is exactly what the name suggests it is, most often a rushing play. The quarterback reads the defense and can either keep the ball himself or pitch or hand the ball off to another back based on what he sees during his read off the snap of the football. Michigan has this in their playbook and we saw Shea Patterson do it a decent amount last year as the season went on. Now they have incorporated the run-pass option, which the quarterback has to quickly decide off the snap of the ball based on his read of the defense if he’s going to throw the ball (usually a quick pass like a bubble screen or a slant), or hand it off/keep it himself.

So what’s this triple option nonsense we’ll see Saturday?

The triple option is the next step in the option offense, and again, it is exactly what it says it is. The regular option has two potential ballcarriers, whereas the triple option has, you guessed it, three.

Triple option attacks usually have three different tracks: the “dive,” usually the running back’s responsibility, the “keep,” which is the QB’s responsibility, and the “pitch,” which is the second option read the signal-caller has to make if he decides to keep the football.

The dive is pretty simple and is more often than not the first choice in the triple option offense. He charges and attacks the offensive line between the tackles in an attempt to pickup yardage or freeze the defense momentarily. That’s why he’s called the dive.

The keep is, again, what it says it is. If off the snap of the ball, the quarterback does not like what he sees for his dive option, he will keep the ball. Then comes the second read, usually a safety, and if that defender follows the QB, that’s where the pitch (third running option) comes into play. If the defender guards the pitch man, the quarterback will keep the football.

As far as how they block for it, you can expect to see a lot of cut blocks on Saturday in an attempt to cut off Michigan defenders from chasing down plays at the line of scrimmage.

Army throws in some different looks and wrinkles to their offense, but those are the basics of what the offense is trying to accomplish. As you can imagine, a team like this will go on a lot of 17 play, 75 yard-like scoring drives and take up almost half a quarter’s worth of time off the clock.

Remember, too. They will pass out of this a few times a game, as well with all of the above included in their passing concepts. That ball is going to come out fast, so defensive backs will have to be on high alert throughout the game.

Here’s a more in-depth explainer from YouTube on the flexbone-style of triple option offense that Army runs. It is a fascinating watch if you find yourself wanting to know more heading into Saturday.

What does this mean for Michigan’s defense and how do they stop it?

The good news for Michigan is that they have known all offseason that this was coming and defensive coordinator Don Brown made it a a point to find time in spring practice and fall camp to coach his team on what they need to do. One might assume (hope) that in a way, they might be more prepared for what Army throws at them than what Middle Tennessee did.

This type of offense is as difficult to stop as it is to run. What it boils down to is that Michigan’s defenders at all three levels of the defense will have to stay disciplined and follow the football, not the ballcarrier, and trust their keys. The triple option relies on a ton of misdirection and deception to throw a defense off balance, though Army’s version of this is a bit more power-based with less moving parts. However, they execute it very, very well and there is a reason they are a fringe top-25 team heading into the weekend.

Given that the Wolverines are young and inexperienced on that side of the ball, this will be a great challenge for them a good measuring stick to see just how disciplined a unit they are at this stage in the game.

Army made waves last season when people had to find out what Twitch was to watch them try and upset Oklahoma, a team that made the College Football Playoff. The Sooners were not all that great defensively last year, so one would think Michigan is in a much better spot to stop them. But Army’s gameplan was to keep Kyler Murray off the field, and they did so to a tune that allowed them to take the Sooners to overtime.

Michigan should win this game and do so by a few scores, but anyone upset that they did not put up 50 or 60 points in the opener will probably be even more upset by what happens on Saturday. Michigan will have less opportunities to score and it puts a spotlight on the execution of their own offense, which was sloppy and inconsistent in the win over MTSU.

Wolverine fans should only panic this weekend if the defense looks totally out of sorts for the entirety of the game. They are going to look shaky at times because that is simply what Army does to you. The biggest thing we can learn from the defense this weekend is how seriously they take their game prep and how disciplined they are at this stage in the game. Even in more traditional offenses, there’s all sorts of frippery that teams can throw at them at any given time this year and this will be a good test for how sound they are in their assignments.