The Air Force Academy meets the Naval Academy, both bringing an interesting twist on the option running game. Mark Schofield has a four-part preview of the matchup, from both sides, starting with the Falcons base option.
The service academies offer a unique college football rivalry: these schools meet on the field knowing they’ll be teammates off it after graduation. These are always interesting matchups on the field, because these teams run similar offenses. Both will want a win in Annapolis, not only for bragging rights, but also to stay atop their respective conferences.
Air Force is #2 in FBS rushing offense overall, averaging 367 yards over their first three games, with Navy trailing slightly at 363 per game. Each team uses the flexbone as their basic formation to form rushing lanes and get favorable blocking angles.
Alignment & Motion
Similar to the Georgia Tech offense, Air Force has 30 offensive personnel on the field: a wide receiver split to each side of the formation, a wingback on each edge, and the fullback behind the quarterback.
One of the basic elements that the Falcons employ is pre-snap motion from a wingback:
Wingback Jacobi Owens (#28) comes in motion from the left, looping back toward the fullback. But then he stops, and the sideline sends in final instructions. While most teams are ready for this pre-snap movement, it can entice defenders to jump offside:
The heart of the Air Force running game is the option, using the flexbone alignment as a base formation. These plays begin with the fullback diving towards one of the A Gaps, with the quarterback and fullback meeting at the mesh point. The QB is reading the defensive front: Should a hole appear in the interior – whether pre-snap or as the play unfolds – the QB gives his big fullback the football, picking up yards inside. Should the interior be closed down, the quarterback keeps the ball and works through his next two reads – whether to pitch to the trailing wingback or keep the football – based on the actions of the playside defensive end:
On this 1st and 10 play against Michigan State, the Falcons run the triple option to the right. Notice the pre-snap alignment of the defensive front: The DT uses 1 technique on the outside shoulder of center, while the playside DE aligns in 5 technique on the outside shoulder of the right tackle. In addition, the playside linebacker is stacked over the defensive end’s outside shoulder, wide of the tackle box:
The defensive alignment tells the quarterback the inside dive can pick up a few yards. Unless the defense shifts or stunts wildly at the snap, the FB should have room:
See the split between the right guard and the right tackle? This separation combines with the defensive alignment along the front to make this play a success. The defensive formation leaves a gap between RG and RT that is wide enough to create a running lane – if the OL executes their blocks:
Working The Reads
If the defense collapses on the fullback dive, the QB must react accordingly, hold on to the football, and execute his next two reads. On this play, the Falcons line up in their standard flexbone alignment, running the option to the right:
Notice the slight differences in the defense compared to the previous play. While the DT is still in a 1 technique and the DE is still in a 5 alignment, the OLB is now to the inside of the defensive end, showing blitz into the B Gap:
Roberts can still hand the ball off to his fullback on this play, but he reads the linebacker at the mesh point: Should linebacker John Reschke bail, the QB can hand off. But if he stays in the B Gap or crashes inside, Roberts can pull the ball back.
Reschke commits inside:
The QB keeps the football, and works down the line, reading the defensive end. The DE is unblocked – as the play calls for – and has a line to intercept the wingback Owens, who is running alongside the QB as the pitchman.
Roberts keeps the football and cuts inside of the defensive end. However, the middle linebacker, Riley Bullough (#30) has read this play perfectly and cuts inside the block of right tackle Sevrin Remmo (#74), keeping this run to a short gain.
Pitch When Necessary
Studying the pre-snap alignment of the defense, we see once more the playside DT in 1 technique, with the DE playing 5 technique. Reschke, the playside OLB is shaded to the inside of the defensive end:
Off the snap, Roberts puts the football in his fullback’s belly, and Reschke and the DE crash to the inside. This means it’s time to move to reads two and three:Lawrence Thomas (#8) is the playside defensive end. He initially pinches inside and attempts to break on the QB. Roberts recognizes this and pitches the football to his wingback, Garrett Brown (#7):
From there, Brown races around the edge, picking up a great cut block from Owens on the safety in the box on his way to a first down:
These are the basic elements of Air Force’s offense, and you will see them a lot on Saturday given that they average 61 rushing attempts per game. Stopping these core elements is the first task Navy faces. But the Falcons do throw a few wrinkles in the run game, as we will see in Part 2 of this preview.
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Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy CBS Sports.