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Boise State playbook: The art of defending the Air Force triple option

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There is no stopping the Air Force triple option offense. There is only surviving it and limiting it and praying that you guessed right on your assignment against it. Air Force is as good an option team as you will see, and it just so happens that the AFA will be facing one of the best defenses you will see. Irresistible force, meet immovable object ... only on Versus!

I don't pretend to have the answers for stopping the Falcons, but there are some tactical advantages that can help to assuage the box score. Join me after the jump for a look at some option defense strategies.

"I think Air Force is as good an offensive football team as there is in the country," SDSU head coach Rocky Long said.

Now, Rocky Long says a lot of things that I don't think you should believe (blue uniforms make life impossible, unicorns don't exist, he was born in 1950), but he is right on with this Air Force team. The Falcon offense is that good. The temptation would be to look at the Falcons' 3-3 record and think that AFA is not a dangerous team, so resist temptation. They are good. Tell your neighbors.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of option defense, here is a propaganda film of Air Force excellence taken from the Falcons' 2009 bowl win over Houston.

For those of you scoring at home, the triple option offense generally looks like the below diagram, with the options of a fullback dive, a quarterback keeper, or a pitch. Air Force will make it look a lot more difficult than this diagram.


Defending the triple option, a layman's view

What I wouldn't give to sit in on a Boise State defensive meeting this week to hear the genius spilling out of Pete Kwiatkowski's overflowing cup of strategy. The Bronco D will have a gameplan that is exponential levels of awesomeness greater than mine. Kwiatkowski has the mind of a defensive savant. I have a Gamecube. Consider this your disclaimer.

And now, an idiot's guide to defending the triple option, as written by an idiot.

Step No. 1: First down is the best down

Triple option offenses, like most offenses, struggle to convert third and longs. Option offenses in particular have a harder time because the majority of their yards come on the ground, and it's harder to gain huge chunks running rather than passing.

Air Force is unique in that they have a quarterback, Tim Jefferson, who can pass worth beans and pick up third and long through the air. Holding firm on first down is still a sound strategy for the Boise State defense, but it is not the be-all, end-all that it might have been in previous years.

Step No. 2: Have a really good nose tackle

The first option in Air Force's triple option is usually an inside handoff to the fullback. Having a defensive player who can wreak one-man havoc in the middle makes this first option look less and less appealing for the offense and it prevents the interior offensive linemen from getting out to their blocks on linebackers and defenders at the second level. Good defensive linemen ruin everything, and it all begins in the middle.

Now, Boise State does not have a nose tackle in its standard 4-2-5 defense. But that ain't no thing. Remember back to the Georgia game and the Big 3-4 defense that the Broncos debuted? That defense can easily transition into a 5-2 front, which is perfect for option defense.


In the above diagram, Chase Baker is playing nose, and he's questionable for Saturday's game. If Baker can't go, you could see backup Mike Atkinson fill in here. Personally, I think it would be highly effective to place Billy Winn over the center and let him go to town.

Step No. 3: Take something away

Turning a triple option offense into a double option offense makes life a lot easier on the defense. This can be performed either by winning one-on-one matchups in key spots (like nose guard on center) or by forcing the offense's hands by making the quarterback choose a specific read.

It will be interesting to see what the Broncos choose to take away. The keystone to a triple option offense is typically the fullback, but Air Force's fullback position is probably the weakest of its skill players. Quarterback Tim Jefferson and running back Asher Clark are the obvious strengths. What's a defensive coordinator to do? Call 546-9537. I have some theories. (No calls after 9:00 p.m. please.)

Step No. 4: Identify the weakest player

We know it's not Jefferson or Clark, so once again, the onus falls on the fullback or the O-line. Kwiatkowski will know where to attack by the time he has finished his film study, and you can expect the gameplan to involve heavy emphasis on the weakling.

Step No. 5: Don't blitz

A triple option offense will get on top of you fast enough without you sending defenders flying toward and past the ball.

Step No. 6: Don't panic

Triple option offenses will get their yards. Air Force gained over 400 against TCU in a 35-19 loss earlier this year and 400+ against San Diego State in a losing effort last week.

A word about assignment football

Chances are that you will hear one of the game announcers mention "assignment football" on Saturday, and just know that the person saying it might not know what he's talking about. In a pair of superb pieces at Smart Footballand The Birddog, bloggers have explained how triple option offenses pick up on your assignments and adjust their strategies in-game to take advantage. For example, in a Georgia Tech - Georgia game, a Bulldog safety tackles the pitch man on a triple option play. The next snap, GT changes its scheme to block the safety and runs the exact same play for a score.

So if you're going to play assignment football, be prepared to at least change your assignments throughout the course of the game. Option offenses will figure you out. Check the quarter mark of the below video for proof that Air Force knows how to adjust.

Additional reading

While doing some Googling for this article, I came across a couple helpful articles. One is from our friends at Dawg Sports who face Georgia Tech's triple option wishbone thingamajig once a year. The other is from a Georgia Tech blogger who had some excellent insight on the option. Here's an excerpt:

This offense isn't a one hit wonder, not a guillotine, though it can be. Its basic philosophy is to stab you with daggers in as many ways as possible, until you die. Slow or quick death, it matters not.

If you really want to get into the ins and outs of Air Force's offense, take a gander at their 1998 offensive playbook and the 1995 version from former coach Fisher DeBerry. Then be prepared to wow the guy next to you at the game who is still trying to figure out where the ball is.


Tyler Shoemaker was wide open for both of his touchdown catches against Colorado State. On the second one, the Broncos ran one of my favorite plays - a fake WR screen. To run this properly, you have to set up the defense, and the Broncos did this by throwing the actual screen several times earlier in the game. Once the defense gets used to the look, the Broncos call for the fake. The initial set-up is the same except Tyler Shoemaker fakes his block and then sprints downfield on a deep route. With the corners attacking the screen (and a tasty pump fake from Kellen Moore), Shoooooooe is wide open.


How many of you recognized Doug Martin's 65-yard touchdown run on Saturday? It was the same one he scored against Nevada. And I mean, exactly the same. Boise State set up in the same formation - trips to the wide side of the field with a tight end on the line to the near side. The Broncos pulled their playside guard and center (a common blocking scheme that I've outline before), and BSU simply outnumbered the Rams. I like to think that Brent Pease knew this was a touchdown before the ball was even snapped.


And then there was that beautiful fake punt. The way Colorado State lined up made things pretty easy on the Broncos. Note the lack of people in the middle of the field. Boise State pulled its left guard (in this case, Hunter White) who led Shoemaker upfield. The right guard made a key block in washing his man down the line of scrimmage to make the hole.



And of course if you want to see any of these plays live, check out the highlights video.

Your turn

What do you know about defending the triple option? Any tips and tricks you care to pass along? What did you notice from the Colorado State game that caught your eye? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: As I suspected, I did not even begin to cover all the different ways to defend the triple option. Reader comments were very helpful, and they included nuggets like a) tackle better, b) get good support from your safeties and corners, c) play good man-to-man coverage, and d) miscellaneous. Seriously, there are a lot of different ways to stop the option. I suggest reading the comments as a postscript to this story.