ARTICLE OF THE DAY

Tripling the Fun
by Brian North
8/23/06

Pirate fans are going to hear a lot about the triple option over the next week and how hard it is to stop. Navy runs the old school offense, and they run it effectively. The Midshipmen led the country in rushing last year averaging 319 yards per game. That led to 34 points per game and an 8-4 record and a bowl win over Colorado State.

Sinking Navy will take a supreme defensive effort (or an explosive offensive effort). You will hear ECU's coaches talk excessively about "assignment football" and discipline. Each defensive player will have a certain responsibility and can't worry about chasing the football no matter how tempting that will be. Here is what they are up against.

Navy's success starts with its offensive line. The Midshipmen return four starters including three seniors at left tackle, left guard, and center.  Ask any offensive lineman and they will tell you they would much rather run block than pass block. Navy's o-line loves to pin its ears back and go after defenders. They helped the Midshipmen set a school record with 5.7 yards per carry last season.

The triple option starts with quarterback. He is the one that makes the offense run with his split second decision making. At first glance this looks like Navys weak point. Brian Hampton takes over for Lamar Owens,  but Hampton is a senior who has orchestrated the offense in crucial moments in the past. He played quarterback in nine games last season and rushed 40 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 99 yards and another score.

The first option in the triple option is for the quarterback to hand off to the fullback going right up the gut, and Navy is loaded at this position. Senior Matt Hall (493 yards rushing & 6 tds) returns after an injury benched him in the 9th game of the 2005 season. Junior Adam Ballard filled in and rushed for 489 yards and three touchdowns in three games.

The second option is for the quarterback to keep the ball and go off tackle. If that is blocked, the third option is to pitch to the slot back, and Navy has plenty of athletes who can get outside. Junior Reggie Campbell torched Colorado State for five touchdowns in their bowl game.  Senior Trey Hines will start at the other slot back.

The other tough part about defending the option is for the secondary to provide adequate run support, but not get burned by the play action pass.  Navy only attempted 12 passes per game last year, but burned several teams with long td passes after the safety's got sucked up into the line trying to help stop the run.

The architect for Navy's option is head coach Paul Johnson. The North Carolina native has led the Midshipmen to eight or more wins in three straight years (the first time that has happened in Annapolis since 1906-08) and his teams have led the country in rushing two of the last three years. Sports Illustrated picked the Middies as the 59th best team in the country and predicted they would finish 10-2.

But the good news is, ECU has faced an option team as recently as last season (Rice, who they beat 41-28), and option teams aren't built to come back quickly if they get behind in the second half. Navy did give up 26 points per game last year and they are susceptible to the big play (19 td passes allowed), so the Pirates should be able to score against them.

This game has the makings of an offensive shootout, and turnovers will probably play a big part in who wins the game. But stopping the triple option will be foremost on all the Pirates minds until the final whistle blows Saturday night.
 
Brian North
bnorth@wcti12.com