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Triple Option Alive And Well At Air Force, New Mexico

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There's still a place for the triple option among schools needing to overcome offensive challenges. Air Force quarterbacks need to execute two-yard pitches as well as 15-yard hitches. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.
There's still a place for the triple option among schools needing to overcome offensive challenges. Air Force quarterbacks need to execute two-yard pitches as well as 15-yard hitches. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.

American football has been played for over a century, and during that time, some of the greatest strategic minds in the game have been searching for a Holy Grail of sorts: An offense that cannot be defended.

As a result, countless fads have come and gone. From the single wing to the run-and-shoot, seemingly perfect strategies for putting a football into an end zone fall out of favor when one brilliant defensive mind figures out how to shut it down. Today, the offense du jour is the spread option. It’s the Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Rolls Royce of offenses all rolled into one if you ask the right person. 

What’s interesting, however, is that the spread merely employs the same basic strategy of its far less flashy predecessor, the triple option: Force one defender to make a choice between two offensive threats. 

Variations of the triple option played a prominent role in national championships for coaching legends like Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, and Tom Osbourne, but now are viewed as something of a relic. 

Don’t start throwing dirt on the old gold standard of college football offense quite yet. In the Mountain West, Air Force and New Mexico still swear by it, but the teams go about it in different ways.

Air Force, like Georgia Tech, Army and Navy, runs the flexbone option, and unlike the traditional I-formation option we were used to seeing in Pop Warner playbooks and from Osbourne’s legendary Nebraska teams, this is a running-centric attack that uses spread formations reminiscent of the run-and-shoot. 

For the Falcons, it has worked. In 2012, Air Force ranked second in the nation in rushing with more than 316 yards per game, and that’s nothing new. The flexbone option has kept the Falcons' rushing attack in the top 10 in yards per game every year since 1987 and they’ve played in six consecutive bowl games.

New Mexico’s new head coach Bob Davie works the option in a different way. He runs it out of the pistol formation in an effort to at least feign the possibility of a pass, but the Lobos never attempted to throw more than 18 times in any game last year.  

Davie’s pistol offense began to yield positive results last year as well. New Mexico finished the year averaging just more than 300 yards per game on the ground, good for fifth in the nation. A 4-9 record may not seem like positive progress, but it’s worth noting that the Lobos only won 3 games total between 2009 and 2011. 

What makes the triple option so successful?

Football.com’s Bill Lund has 16 years of experience coaching at the collegiate level and believes there’s a number of reasons why the triple option still works in today’s pass-happy game.

“Running the triple option allows a team to control the clock and thereby control the game,” Lund said. “Running that much shortens the game and limits another team’s possessions. It allows a team to keep games closer and gives them a shot at winning.”

In other words, a properly run option offense can help to level out a disparity in athletic talent and essentially allow a pack mule the chance to run alongside a thoroughbred. The best recent example of this is Georgia Southern, an FCS school that managed to hang 21 points on Alabama using a triple option attack in 2011. LSU only managed 9 points in two games against the Crimson Tide defense that year. 

Part of the reason Nick Saban — a noted game planner — and his defense had such a hard time with the Eagles two seasons ago is partly because they don’t see the option often. When a coach only has a week to prepare his team for an opponent, defending the triple option becomes a nightmare. Defenders are required to stick to unfamiliar assignments, opening the door to big plays and sustained drives.

The option doesn’t only help teams between the sidelines, either. According to Lund, the offensive strategy can help on the recruiting trail.

“You can really corner a market in recruiting because you can talk to an athletic quarterback and recruit him as a quarterback where other schools will want to make him a wide receiver or a linebacker,” Lund said. “You can also get away with undersized linemen, which works out great for Air Force, because you can’t put a 300-pound offensive lineman in a fighter jet.”

How did an offense that is so darn efficient fall out of favor?

Rule changes are a good place to start. Contact rules between receivers and defenders have made slinging the ball all over the field a lower-risk proposition, and if you can get seven or 10 yards through the air, why settle for four or five on the ground?

Another reason is that the triple option isn’t always the most attractive brand of football, and as much as people are hesitant to admit it, college football is big business.

“We want to see a lot of scoring,” Lund said. “It’s about getting fans in the stands and throwing the ball does that.”

If we’re sticking with the Ferrari reference for the spread, then there’s only one appropriate comparison for teams like the Falcons and Lobos that are sticking with the triple option: the Millennium Falcon.

To quote Han Solo, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.”