Happy Holidays! I don't know about everybody else, but any time I get to invest time and thought into the Washington State Cougars football team while simultaneously investing three-fourths of my meager savings into sellers of questionable integrity on Amazon in a blind panic because it's Christmas Eve and I swear it was December 1st yesterday and I need these gifts to be here, like, yesterday ... well, that's a successful season in my book.
Speaking of Christmas gifts of a "thanks, I hate it" nature, the Cougs are up against the 10-2 Falcons of the United States Air Force Academy. Being a service academy, USAFA implements a triple option attack in an effort to mitigate their inherent talent gap due to recruiting disadvantages. Defending the triple option is an exercise in patience, eye discipline, repetition, and execution. And if you've been paying attention to the WSU defense for the last four months and were asked to describe it, those are not the qualities that would spring to the forefront of your mind. To put it another way, in the words of Mr. Arnold, hold on to your butts.
The first step in dealing with the triple option is stopping the fullback. Air Force will be perfectly content to give the ball to the fullback 40 times if he's able to get three or four yards a carry. Whether it's a part of the triple option read or it's a designed fullback run, creating negative plays or, at the very least, limiting it to one or two yards, is imperative in controlling this offense. We'll get to the option look later, so we'll start with a designed fullback run, and one that Air Force has had a lot of success with: the quick trap.
By the first play of the second half, Colorado State has seen option play after option play after option play from the Air Force offense. Because of that, their defenders have to be thinking wide. Air Force takes advantage of that by running inside of those defenders. Here, Air Force motions into a formation that is pretty close to the base Flexbone. The fullback, Timothy Jackson, runs directly at the center as the quarterback opens up to his left hand. After taking the handoff, Jackson tucks behind his pulling guard and bends back towards the right side. You'll often see this referred to as "bend trap" because the fullback aims opposite the hole, then bends it back behind the trapping guard. The guard kicks out the first down lineman past the ball, and the wing and O-Line walls off the rest of the defense beautifully, giving Jackson a nice alley to run through.
The first thing you'll likely notice is how quick the offensive line is off the ball. Their linemen are relatively small and want to beat you to the angle, taking advantage of any hesitation you might have as you get caught watching he option action. Coming right on their heels is the fullback at 100 miles per hour. It's quick, and they all bring the lumber, which wears on a defense over time, particularly if the offense is having success slamming the fullback in there. The other wrinkle that the option adds is the ability to leave defenders unblocked. After the handoff, Air Force gives a counter option look. Just showing it forces CSU's stand up end, #24, to pause for a split second. By the time he reacts to the run, Jackson is already past him.
Notice the pathing of the playside wing as well. That's Benjamin Waters, who is listed as a receiver on the roster. Just stick that in your back pocket for now.
Now we get to the bread and butter of the Air Force offense. The option attack is predicated on reading defenders and playing off the decisions they make. In theory, the defense is always wrong, because there is always an answer to whatever decision the defense makes. In the triple option, there are two reads. The first is whether to give to the fullback or not; the second is for the quarterback to keep or pitch. Air Force will vary which two defenders are getting read, sometimes basing that on which gap they want to attack, other times basing it on whether they feel they can block a certain defender. If you can't block him, you read him, as the saying goes. Air Force will also influence defensive alignment with slight variations in formation and motion. They don't need much room, and widening by half a man or half a gap can be enough to isolate a defender.
On this play, the first read is going to be the defensive tackle towards the bottom of the screen, #99. The second read is the stand up edge, #24. Neither of those defenders are going to be blocked, leaving the offensive line and a wing flexed down as a tight end to block the other seven box defenders. And a couple of those are going to be keyed on the fullback, so they'll be a step slow if it goes outside.
The tackle turns his shoulders to the inside, going after the fullback. He’s toast at that point, as the ball gets pulled out of the fullback’s arms and goes wide. And now the edge defender is in a predicament. He’s by himself against the QB and the pitch, and no matter what he does, he’s wrong. Donald Hammond III, the USAFA QB, freezes him with a shoulder fake and is gone. A couple of solid blocks on the outside by the two receivers turn this into a chunk play for the Academy.
This play gives you a glimpse of how Air Force uses formations to exploit the defensive alignment. CSU's base alignment against the flexbone was a 5-2, and occasionally they would bring a safety up tight behind the linebackers. With the above formation, the flexed wing is ineligible, and won't be a potential option threat, so the Rams bring that safety up to help in the box. The two receiver formation keeps the strong safety in coverage, and the flexed wing gives Air Force an extra blocker on the playside. By reading the two defenders on the wide side, Air Force has accounted for any outside force. All it takes is correct execution by Hammond, and CSU will have nothing for him on the edge.
Next we'll take a look at an option where Hammond pitches. The reads are the same here, the tackle first then the stand up end. Fresno State tries to screw up the read by blitzing a linebacker, but the left tackle takes care of him. The end crashes pretty hard, so this is a quick read for Hammond, and he gets the ball out in the hands of Kadin Remsberg who takes care of the rest.
Of all Air Force's skill players, Remsberg might be the one who scares me the most. He can flat out fly. He was a state champion in the 100m and 200m dash as a high schooler in Kansas, and if he gets free in the open field he won't be caught. The overall talent level of Air Force isn't going to match up with a Power 5 school, but don't sleep on Air Force's team speed. They have burners at the skill positions that will make you look silly.
The Passing Game
Air Force has only thrown 114 passes all season, good for less than 10 per game. But they have 14 passing touchdowns, which means when they do throw it, they're trying to beat you over the top because they see your safeties creeping up towards the line of scrimmage. They mainly subsist on play-action passes, which makes sense given their 57 rushing attempts per game. But they will drop back and sling it on occasion. Here, Hammond hits the wing releasing vertically. Because the defense is forced to commit so many defenders to the run, the receivers are seeing one-on-one coverage. So when the tackle is missed, there's no one left to clean up the mess and it's a straight shot to the end zone.
It should also be noted that Hammond has a cannon attached to his right shoulder. He very rarely has a clean pocket, and in this instance he's throwing flat-footed while fading away slightly. And it's still a laser. I've watched most of Air Force's games this season, and there's always two or three throws that get my eyebrows raised. Accuracy is a question for Hammond, but there should be no doubts about his arm strength.
Ok, now pull that play from earlier out of your pocket. Waters is lined up at the wing to the top of the screen. Hammond is going to play fake wide to that side, and Waters is going to take the same path and make it look like he's arc blocking, except ...
And there's the difficulty of defending this passing game. They make everything look so similar that it's easy to get fooled. The safety to the top flies down as if it were a run. It may also be a safety blitz, as there's no "oh, s#!+" moment of realization that Hammond is passing; he just keeps on coming at the QB. Either way, he's no help as the post by the receiver completely clears out that side of the field. It's an easy pitch and catch for Hammond, who you'll notice again throws flat-footed and just flings it to Waters.
This is going to be a tough assignment for a defense that has struggled most of the year. If I'm Coach Bellantoni and/or Coach McBath, I don't think I'd be comfortable sitting back and letting the Air Force offense dictate its terms to us. The Cougs would get a steady diet of fullback in that case. I think the better play is to be aggressive on first and second down, trying to create negative plays to get Air Force behind the chains and uncomfortable, maybe even forcing a bad exchange or a bad pitch and getting a turnover. Whatever they decide, they will be focused on getting the ball back in the hands of Anthony Gordon and the Cougar offense, because the Air Force defense will have just as much trouble on their hands. Gordon needs 606 yards to set the record for passing yards in a season and, with a little help from that defense, I think he has a legitimate shot to do it. This should be a fun one. Unless you like defense, of course.
On a personal note, I will be slightly torn on Friday. My mom joined the Air Force in 2002 and we moved to Colorado Springs for her first assignment, which was at the Academy. I could see Falcon Stadium from our apartment complex and went to several games over the two years I lived there. So Air Force is my second team. But I assure you my priorities are in order. Go Cougs.
Also, I will be in Phoenix on Friday for the festivities! If you will be as well, come say hi!