In this first installment of Throwback Thursday, Inside The Pylon’s quarterback Mark Schofield looks at the Triple Option used by Nebraska against Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
Each play on a football field is a Matryoshka doll: options nested inside options. Before the snap, the personnel grouping narrows the choices, the pre-snap read of the defense reduces them further, and, as the play develops, the possibilities narrow even further. Everything – the alignment, the motion – is done to present the quarterback with options.
Welcome to Option 101: The Nebraska Triple Option. This class serves as an introduction to the option game in college football, and is a prerequisite for later classes including Option 201: The Service Academies Flexbone, Option 301: The Spread Read Option, and Option 401: Gus Malzhan is a Mad Genius. Today, we discuss the basic tenets of the triple option using the 1996 Fiesta Bowl between the Florida Gators and the Nebraska Cornhuskers as a backdrop.
Back in 1995, Nebraska dominated opposing defenses with their ground attack. Led by quarterback Tommie Frazier and tailbacks Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green, the Huskers averaged 400 yards per game running the ball. The offense utilized a triple-option offense run primarily out of the i-formation. On these plays the fullback will charge forward into the line while the running back circles to the sideline. The quarterback takes the snap and either hands off to the fullback, or fakes and continues down the line of scrimmage to explore options two (keeping it himself) and three (pitching it to the tailback):
To understand how the triple option works, it helps to study this chart below, as it will be referred to as part of each play breakdown.
Let’s look at each of the three options in detail to explore what made this such an effective offensive scheme for Nebraska in this game – and why it has been such a staple of college offensive playbooks for some decades now.
The quarterback’s first decision in the traditional triple option is the dive read. The FB breaks straight for the A- or B-gap, and the QB will either give him the football or continue down the line of scrimmage to his second read. The decision whether to hand off to the FB is often made pre-snap, based on the opposing alignment. On this play, note the alignment of the interior defensive line prior to the snap:
The defensive tackle shifts from over the center to over the right guard. This creates a natural running lane. Frazier notices the shift and gives the football to his fullback, ripping off a nice gain:
Remember, the QB is making the decision to use the first option before the ball is snapped. While the QB generally makes the decision pre-snap, he is not prohibited from making a split section read after the snap. Here, the defensive line is spread out prior to the play. Each defensive end is using a 7-technique (see above) while the defensive tackles shade the guards, creating space in the middle
Seeing the easy yards straight ahead, Frazier gives his fullback the ball and he rumbles up the gut for decent yardage.
Pitch Read: When to Keep
If the defensive line leaves no obvious holes and takes away the dive pre-snap, the QB keeps the football and moves laterally along the line of scrimmage. This takes us to the pitch read.
The triple option, by design, leaves a defender unblocked. Usually, this is the defensive end playside. The QB aims his run at that player with the goal of forcing the defender to either commit to the circling tailback or to the QB and the ball.
The quarterback is exposed to the defender but must charge directly at him while selling the pitch to his running back. On this play the Huskers have the triple option play called to the left side of the formation. Watch the defensive adjustment pre-snap:
Florida’s defensive line shifts to the offense’s left, eliminating the dive as a possibility for Frazier. Therefore, he keeps the football and continues to the pitch read on this play. The left tackle blocks inside and the left guard pulls to block the defensive end (circled in white). With that alignment, the strong-side linebacker (circled in black) will be the pitch read for Frazier. Notice how the QB is staring in the direction of the defenders:
Both the DE and LB get into the backfield, leaving a crease on the interior:
The defenders commit to stopping the tailback, or pitch read. There is no way for the QB to deliver the ball safely, nor will the tailback be able to evade both defenders. Frazier wisely tucks the football and utilizes the interior running lane:
Running through the play, you can see how both defenders commit to the tailback, leaving a clear path for Frazier:
Pitch Read: When to Pitch
When the pitch read defender commits to the quarterback, the tailback is in position for a big play. On this snap, Nebraska will run the triple option to their left. With a tight end in the formation, Florida walks OLB Ben Hanks (#11) up over the TE. Circled in white, he is Frazier’s read on this play:
The TE ignores Hanks and instead blocks one of the inside linebackers. Frazier keeps the football and runs down the line of scrimmage, staring directly at the OLB:
The QB turns upfield and here we see three to four yards separate Frazier and his pitchman Green. This is the ideal distance, preventing a defender from playing both the QB and RB.
Meanwhile, Frazier is about to force Hanks to make a decision:
Hanks commits to the QB:
Frazier waits until the last moment, delivering the pitch to Green who has nothing but green in front of him:
The RB secures the ball, tearing off a quick 7-yard gain to set Nebraska up with 1st and Goal:
The Lead Option Variation
The Huskers run two variations of the option on this night, both of which are used in today’s college game. The first is the lead option where, rather than looking for a handoff, the fullback serves as a lead blocker. On this play, Nebraska faces 3rd and 2. Watch as the FB leads Frazier to the right for a first down conversion:
First, the quarterback and tailback maintain optimum separation down the line of scrimmage, with the fullback in front of Frazier and serving as his escort:
Hanks, lined up over the right TE, blows up his blocker by getting past his right shoulder and impeding the pitch lane. The QB wisely tucks the football, cuts away from Hanks (who cannot reverse course with the TE in the way), and follows his FB for a short gain and a new set of downs.
The Speed Option Variation
Nebraska also utilized yet another variant known as the speed option. This is simply a two-man option play between the QB and the RB, eliminating the FB and dive read. The quarterback takes the snap and begins moving laterally down the line of scrimmage with the pitchman trailing him. On this play the Huskers run the speed option to the right side of the field. Hanks, who likely did not sleep much after this game, is circled in white below. He will remain unblocked, again serving as Frazier’s pitch read:
The TE (circled in red) blocks inside, leaving Hanks untouched. Notice that after the snap Hanks has his feet planted between the hashmarks and the numbers (30) painted on the field:
As QB and RB continue their routes, look where Hanks now stands. He is on the numbers, illustrating that he is gaining width toward the sideline. Doing this opens up a running lane for Frazier to the inside:
With Hanks outside keying on the pitchman, the QB finds a seam for his run. An interior lineman (circled in red) on the second level blocks a linebacker and Frazier has room to roam:
The QB makes a few defenders miss and is out to the 41-yard line with a 12-yard gain.
Finally, no discussion of the 1996 Fiesta Bowl would be complete without discussing the play known in Nebraska simply as “The Run”:
The Huskers run the triple option to the right side of the field, and the rest is history. Worth noting here is that Frazier demonstrates a rule for quarterbacks who run the option known as “hash marks-numbers-sideline.” Once the QB commits to keeping the football, he should angle his run to the outside, hitting each of these landmarks in succession. That works to get the quarterback in space and away from all those bigger bodies in the interior. We are a fragile species, after all.
Nebraska ran their triple option offense to perfection on this night, as they had done throughout their season. When properly executed the basic triple option offense creates confusion in a defense and leads to big plays in the running game. However, the game changes and defenses adjust. Teams began to use man concepts and dedicated a player to hit the QB on each option play whether he kept the ball or not, prompting offenses to move away from the triple option. But the option game has evolved as well, as we will see in the rest of this series. Up next: the service academies and the flexbone option offense in Option 201.
All video and images courtesy 1996 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. CBS Sports. January 2, 1996.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.