(Sorta) Four Plays - Air Force 2017

Submitted by EGD on September 11th, 2017 at 9:29 AM

Four Plays – Air Force Academy (2017)

Ordinarily this series examines the probable individual matchups Michigan expects to face against particular opponents on one of Michigan’s key running plays and one of its key passing plays, as well as defensively against a couple of the opponent’s key plays, in an upcoming game.  It’s mostly a look at some of the basic schematics the two teams will be running, combined with a glimpse at how the personnel differences will manifest.  This week, however, Michigan plays the Air Force Academy and will presumably enjoy a rather significant talent advantage at pretty much every position on the field.  Therefore, I’ve decided to do something a little different with this Four Plays; instead of the usual two Michigan plays and two opponent plays, I’ve prepared a little Triple Option Primer for you that looks at four basic AFA offensive plays, so we can have a better idea what we’ll be dealing with.

Okay, let's get started with the Academy's backs.  Most of the multiple-back offenses we are used to seeing have a running back and a blocking back.  The running back may be called “running back,” “halfback,” “tailback,” I-back,” whatever—but typically when that offense runs the ball his job is either going to be to carry the ball or possibly carry the ball (as in an option offense).  The blocking back, who (obviously) will typically be serving as a blocker on running plays, may be called a “fullback,” an “H-Back,” or possibly other things.  Therefore, running backs are usually smaller, more athletic players, while fullbacks tend to be larger and incredibly physical.

In a triple option offense, however, the two different types of backs (usually called “A-backs” and “B-backs”) both carry the ball—but differ more based on their respective running styles.  The A-back is more of an outside runner—he typically receives the ball on outside pitches or toss sweeps.  The A-back is typically faster with some open-field wiggle, and should also be a credible pass receiver.  Chris Evans and Ty Isaac would likely make good A-backs.  AIr Force's 2-deep lists (the most-unfortunately named) Timothy McVey and Malik Miller as its A-backs, along with QB Arion Worthman.

The B-back is more of an inside, power runner.  Because the first option is a quick give to the B-back (i.e., the “dive” read), running ability is much more important to a triple option B-back than a fullback in a more mainstream offense.  Also ,since the defense will almost always hit the fullback on his dive track whether he actually has the ball or not, a B-back still needs to be tough and durable enough to withstand the contact.  Deveon Smith would have been a perfect triple option B-back. For Air Force, the starting B-back's name is Parker Wilson.

Now, AFA is known for running its option plays out of numerous formations (and here is some VIDEO of them doing just that.  But in the standard flexbone formation that the triple option is commonly associated with, there are two A-backs who line up just outside the tackles (and may be called “slotbacks” in this formation), while the B-Back aligns two yards directly behind the heels of the quarterback.

Okay, so: the triple option.  The base play in the triple option offense is the “inside veer.”  That is the core play on which the B-Back threatens the dive (attacking inside the OT), the quarterback threatens off-tackle, and the (an) A-back threatens further outside (the linebackers).  Inside veer looks slightly different depending on whether it’s run against a three-man or four-man defensive line, and with Don Brown we really don’t know which one to expect, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just look at it against Brown’s basic 4-2-5:

Before the snap, one of the A-backs will motion behind the B-back.  At the snap, the QB will first read his dive key.  The dive key is the first defensive lineman outside the playside guard—in this case, the WDE.  The QB must read the dive key and hand off to the B-back on the dive unless the WDE attempts to tackle the B-back.  The B-back’s job is to aim for the middle of the offensive guard and run full speed into the 3-hole, whether he gets the ball or not. 

The dive attacks the “bubble” in the defensive line (between the NT and defensive end).  It calls for the center and playside guard to execute a difficult “scoop” block.  That means the guard will block down on the NT just momentarily, then pop off to block the MLB—with the center then stepping around the NT to reach block him after the guard leaves.  If the scoop is successful, then—according to former Navy B-back Vince Murray—the B-back reads the guard’s block on the linebacker and cuts off of that.  But, said Murray, “if the nose crosses the center’s face I’m cutting it back side.” 

If the dive key attacks the B-back, then the quarterback pulls the ball and progresses to the pitch phase.  Now he reads his “pitch key,” which is the first defender outside the dive key.  Here, the quarterback will keep the ball and attack outside the playside tackle unless the pitch key tries to tackle him.  In that case, the quarterback will pitch the ball to the trailing A-back, who attacks outside the pitch key. 

What makes the inside veer can difficult to stop is that the play gives a numerical advantage to the offense, as it essentially enables the QB to “block” two playside defenders by optioning them off.  The defense may therefore be inclined to counter this advantage schematically, such as by committing defensive backs to run defense, or overplaying the dive.  Naturally, the triple option has counters for these various strategies.

One of the most basic counters is the midline option.  Since the dive play normally attacks the B-gap (outside the playside guard), an opposing defense may be inclined to overplay the B-gap and neglect the A-gap.  Or, if the inside veer has been hitting outside, an inside linebacker assigned to that A-gap may be neglecting it so as to get outside more quickly to defend the QB pull.  This opens up the opportunity for the offense to hit the midline option.

The midline looks very similar to the inside veer, except for a few things.  Probably the most obvious difference is that the playside tackle will cut-block the DE instead of leaving him for the QB to option off.  That’s because the QB is not reading the DE; instead, he is reading the first defender outside the center—the 3T here—and will give the ball to the B-back on the dive unless that defender attacks the B-back.  Note that here, the B-back attacks through the 2-hole (or A-gap, to the defense) between the center and guard.  If the dive key attacks the b-back, then the QB pulls the ball and runs outside the guard (the 4-hole or B-gap), this making the dive key wrong.  Click  HERE for an example of Navy running the midline against South Carolina.

Another important counter is the “rocket toss.”  If the defense commits extra defenders to stop the dive, then the offense can trap those defenders inside by getting the ball swiftly to the edge.  This is the point of rocket toss, a quick-hitting outside run that resembles inside veer at the outset.  The A-back receives the pitch at full speed, which enables the offensive line to ignore any defensive linemen at the 5-technique or inside.  The playside guard pulls, the playside A-back “arc blocks” on a LB or safety, and the playside tackle executes a “dip & rip” technique—going around the DE to block a playside linebacker. 

Okay, now let’s say the defense decides to attack the option game by bringing a safety down into run support.  One key advantage of flexbone personnel is that it simultaneously gives you both four capable running backs and four wide receivers.   So if a safety cheats up to play the run, the offense should gain an advantage in the passing game. 

Here we see four verticals run out of the flexbone against a Cover 1 defense.  If the strong safety has cheated up to stop the veer, then this play could be very dangerous indeed, as one A-back will have single coverage against a linebacker (or HSP) and the other A-back will have single coverage against a safety cheating run.  The free safety will only be able to help over the top on one of those inside routes—and thus the other should* break open deep.  With an effective play-action fake, the offense hopes to freeze or suck up the defenders responsible for coverage on the A-backs.  Then the QB will use his eyes to try and draw the free safety to one A-back before throwing to the other.

*Of course, this might not work so well against safeties who can cover like cornerbacks…

Certainly Air Force has many more tricks up its triple option sleeve than we have seen here, but hopefully the above is enough to give you a good basic understanding.  Now, let’s look at what Michigan needs to do to defend against it. 

Naturally, the first threat the defense must account for against the triple option is the dive threat.  Remember that on inside veer, the dive attacks the B-gap, but on the midline option the dive will attack the A-gap.  This means the A-gap and B-gap defenders are the dive defenders. 

Next, the defense needs to defend the C-gap against the QB keeper. 

By taking away the C-gap, the defender “spills” the run toward the sideline.  This threatens to put the QB and trailing A-back in a 2-on-1 against the strong safety.  Therefore, the defense needs to commit the free safety, who plays the QB on an outside keep, while the strong safety is assigned to the pitch man.  When the broadcast crew inevitably brings up “assignment football” on Saturday, this is what they are talking about.

The remaining assignments for the defense are as follows.  The cornerbacks need to play primary pass defense.  The backside safety (viper) needs to first check for any reverse possibilities, then pursue the ball.  And the backside DE uses a “heel-line-trail” technique, meaning he runs the QB down from behind. 

Advantage: ?

I tend to think Michigan’s monster defensive front ought to be able to swallow these guys whole, but it doesn’t always work that way against the triple option.   The last time Michigan faced Air Force, back in 2012, the defense couldn’t solve AFA’s attack until late in the fourth quarter.  It’s a good thing Denard ran for over 200 yards that day and Devin Funchess caught four passes for 106 yards and a TD, because Air Force put up over 400 yards of total offense, including 290 yards on the ground, scored 28 points, and put a pretty serious scare into the Big House. 

Michigan seemed to be in real danger of losing that game when a ten-play Air Force drive reached the end zone to cut Michigan’s big early lead to just 28-25 with 12:01 to go. Fortunately Michigan added a field goal and the defense stopped AFA on fourth downs on both of the Academy’s final two possessions to preserve the 31-28 victory.  But the game was too close for comfort—and now the Falcons are coming back to the Big House to try it again.  Hopefully Michigan will do better this time around, though with an opponent like this you’ll take the win any way you can get it.  So there could be some nervous moments on Saturday, but hopefully with Don Brown and 110,000+ fully united behind the team, the Wolverines will notch the W once again.  Go Blue!



September 11th, 2017 at 9:56 AM ^

USAFA will not give us many negative plays.  I expect to see a lot of 2nd and 6 or 7 and 3rd and 3 or 4 instead of 2nd and 3rd and longs.  There will be a lot of pressure on the defense.


September 11th, 2017 at 11:30 AM ^

is to change up the assignment for whoever gets the pitchman or the QB, otherwise, they'll change up the blocking scheme to block them rendering the defensive scheme useless. If they keep the S to assign certain players, the OC will exploit it as the series goes on.

It's up to Don Brown to be creative and the DL to keep their body clean from cut blocks.


September 11th, 2017 at 11:52 AM ^

Yes, I think that is one major benefit to Michigan having safeties who are good in man-to-man coverage.  It enables you to, say, bring the corner off the edge in run support and have a safety rotate over to cover the WR he's leaving.  


September 11th, 2017 at 4:06 PM ^

because CB tackling is paramount against this offense. As long as Don Brown keeps rotating assignent between Bush, McCray and any of the DBs on the field, they will keep Air Force OC guessing on who gets the QB and the pitchman.


September 11th, 2017 at 11:30 AM ^

So I was thinking, "Didn't we play Air Force recently?"  And in looking back in the records, it's now been 5 years since then.  We beat them 31-25.

Five years.  Poof.  Time flies.


September 11th, 2017 at 7:24 PM ^

The biggest factor is going to be the defensive line containing the dives. An option team facing 2nd and long is going to be a lot less effective, 1st down is always critical. It kind of takes away the dive option the rest of the series. I watched Army struggle through a 2-10 season in 2015 mostly because they had no good B back and a poor offensive line. Although I expect Air Force wont be that bad this year, Michigans DTs should be able to swallow up the fullback pretty easily most of the time, only thing Id be concerned with is how the line holds up when either Mone or Hurst are off the field. Im assuming Michigan will have to go with a 4 man front for 90% of the snaps in this one. Interested to see how Don Brown may surprise us.


September 12th, 2017 at 8:05 AM ^

The biggest factor is going to be the defensive line containing the dives.

Is there anything a good D-Line can't do?

Seriously ... it seems that a good defensive line is really the heart and soul of a good defense.

I will never forget Auburn's throttling of Oregon in the BCS championship in January 2011. Everyone expected Oregon to put up a ton on Auburn, but Nick Fairley and that defensive line had other plans.  

The best offense becomes a shambles when there a 300 pound defensive lineman (or two) gumming up the works in the backfield.


September 12th, 2017 at 7:21 AM ^

Not sure I can really answer that as I am not confident that I really understand the 3-3-5 defense or Don Brown's use of it.  Obviously if M does play mostly with four down linemen then Mone is going to get his snaps.

Just kind of thinking through this though, it does seem like one way to really utilize M's talent advantage would be if you could have a beast like Mone two-gapping people in AFA's interior OL.  The fewer defenders you need to take away the dive, the more bodies you can get outside and also you're probably less vulnerable to play action.  But this is just a guess; there are plenty of more knowledgeable people on the board so hopefully I can call in an assist!


September 12th, 2017 at 8:00 AM ^

How much is this Air Force offense like the Michigan "option" that Ricky Leach spearheaded back in the 1970s?

I can remember a lot of plays where Leach would take the snap and roll left or right, and then either pitch or keep based on what the defense presented.

That was back in the days of the Oklahoma wishbone, and I recall some sports articles -- Joe Falls of the Detroit News wrote one -- questioning whether the wishbone ws "unstoppable."


September 12th, 2017 at 9:40 AM ^

I was a little kid during the heyday of the wishbone so I really couldn't say.  I do have fond memories of listening to Bo's teams run option football on the radio, but haven't the faintest idea what a lot of those runs must have looked like.  Hopefully M will get a wishbone team on the schedule one of these days so I'll have a reason/ excuse to read up on it.


September 12th, 2017 at 10:48 AM ^

One of my disappointments in Nebraska entering the B1G was the suspension of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game every year.  That was second only to Michigan-Ohio State in terms of being the pinnacle of college football for the teenage me back in the 70's.

Watching the Oklahoma wishbone was quite something -- the QB would be under center, and there'd be three backs behind: one in a FB-like spot, and two TBs in a line behind him.  One wide receiver, one TE, and four guys in the backfield.  At the snap it seemed like the whole offense went (typically) right, and the QB would carry until the very last second and then either take off upfield or pitch to someone.  Back then the shoulder pads were enormous, the jerseys cut off showing midriff, and the whole damn thing was just glorious college football.

As my memory serves, Michigan usually ran a FB and TB rather than two TB, and there'd be two TEs.  I can still hear Bob Ufer call the set: "Two tight ends and a balanced line.  Huckleby deep and Davis close. Rickeeeey Leach under center."  At the snap it was like Oklahoma and the wishbone ... and Leach would either pitch to the TB (with FB blocking) or pull it back and run with it himself.

One wide-out in those days ... Jim Smith.  Great receiver.  Went to Pittsburgh and did well, though he was in the shadow of Lynn Swann for a bit.  I've often wondered what it was like to be the lone receiver in a run-oriented offense ... where most plays aren't coming to you but you have to run your tail off as if it was.

I love college football.  Many great memories from those days.


September 12th, 2017 at 11:08 AM ^

Oh yeah, I definitely do recall seeing wishbone teams occasionally on TV in the '80s.  I probably only saw Jamelle Holieway's OU team once or twice, and if I ever saw that OK State team with Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas I did not appreciate it at the time.  I think Bo ran some wishbone with Steve Smith, but RIck Leach was before my time (I actually remember him best as a baseball player for Toronto).

Honestly, the first team I think of when I hear "wishbone" is actually the Colorado Buffaloes; I know McCartney was still running the 'bone in the late '90s and maybe even after.  I know they'd stopped by the time Kordell Stewart appeared in '93 but I think Eric Bienemy and those guys were all running wishbone.  Those were really fun teams to watch.


September 12th, 2017 at 11:16 AM ^

* Reference to Wishbone salad dressing :-)

Another interesting angle on this is why the Wishbone faded away.  I recall it was a horrible come-from-behind offense.  So teams dared not fall behind early or watch out.

I recall also that eventually defenses started to figure things out.  That may have been with the advent of greater and greater athleticism and speed in the LB corp.  "Y'all have fast running backs going laterally?  Hell, we have fast LBs that can run with y'all." 

My memory recalls the Wishbone dying out just about the time the Florida teams burst on the scene with all their speed in both rushing and receiving.  It's somewhat ironic that Rodriguez's read-option spread was, in some ways, borrowing from the earlier pitch-option offenses.

Sextus Empiricus

September 13th, 2017 at 2:44 AM ^

from 2012 is worth a read.  It's really a different animal.


He also did one on AF traditions.


Here is another good run down on recruiting differences.


I don't look forward to this game.  But the good news is though it is different than other teams it is pretty much the same system year in year out.  Michigan prep'd for this game in Rome.  That will help.  Brown is a dude.


Great write up. Thanks.

Go Blue!