The East Carolina Pirates have played the Naval Academy three times since head coach Ruffin McNeill took the job in 2010. In those three games, Navy has won two and scored 76, 35, and 56 in those matchups.
How do they score so many points using an offense that barely incorporates the passing game at all? The triple option is how. A mastery of the triple option offense and the ability of everyone to do their job and trust teammates to do the same makes Navy one of the best rushing teams on a yearly basis.
Navy has only played one game in 2015 with 11 different players earning a carry. Fullback Chris Swain leads a group that combined for 192 yards and four touchdowns in the win. Slotback DeBrandon Sanders is the leading rusher for a group that has combined for 135 yards, while quarterbacks Keenan Reynolds and Tago Smith combined for 44 yards in the season opener.
Now that you know what players to watch out for, let's take a look at the triple option and how to defend it.
In a triple option basic set, there are slot backs on either side of the quarterback with a fullback lined up behind the quarterback. Wide receivers and tight ends can be tight inside on the line, spread wide to force the defense to respect the pass, or any combination of the two. Before the snap, one of the two slot backs will normally go in motion. Occasionally motion is used to trick the defense into overloading to the motion side. Most of the time, the play is headed that way with motion used to give the slotback a bit of a head start on the play.
Once the snap is received, the first read for the quarterback is to read the play side defensive end, Terrell Stanley and Johnathan White for the the Pirates. If they defensive end holds his ground on the edge, the read calls for a handoff up the middle to the fullback. This play is by far the favorite for Navy with fullbacks carrying the ball 21 times for over nine yards per carry in the season opener. Swain is a multi-year starter at the position and will get the ball 10-15 times a game. Middle linebackers Zeek Bigger and Jordan Williams will need to be ready for several fullback dives.
If the playside defensive end does crash inside to stop the fullback, the second read from the quarterback is on the play side outside linebacker. OLBs Montese Overton and Joe Allely will determine whether the quarterback holds on to the ball or pitches it to the outside. If the LB immediately moves for the quarterback, a pitch is made to the slot back. If the LB goes for the outside, the QB cuts inside and carries the ball around the edge.
This is where it gets tricky for the defense as many times, there is a play side wide receiver ready to block the play side cornerback. If so, the safety has to be in position to take the slot back and stuff the play. The linebacker and safety can also switch responsibilities with the safety covering the quarterback and the linebacker heading out wide to stop the pitch depending on the defense called in the huddle.
What it basically comes down to is every player fulfilling their responsibility and making the solid tackle on every play. If the defensive end is supposed to crash if unblocked, he must do so. Same with linebackers and the secondary and their reads. All it takes is one player not in his spot for the triple option to gain enormous yards.
There are variations that Navy can run including a quarterback keeper behind the faked fullback dive, counter options, and passes to 6-4 wide receiver Jamir Tillman which I may look at breaking down in the offseason.
Navy will gain yards and first downs no matter what the defense does as you cannot stop every play. Defense versus a triple option offense is all about trust, and the Pirates defenders must be willing to trust one another to do their job in order to win this game.