Northwestern's challenge this Saturday: defending the triple option

    Whether Northwestern can overcome Army’s triple option offense will depend heavily on the play of NU’s linebackers, like Bryce McNaul (No. 51). Photo by Gus Wezerek / North By Northwestern

    When Northwestern (2-0) takes on Army (0-2) this Saturday, many Wildcat supporters may find the Army offensive scheme to be rather foreign and unorthodox. The Black Knights run a type of offense called the “triple option,” which emphasizes the ability to hand the ball off to a number of different players on a given play. For example, while a traditional offense’s definition of a run game might be handing the ball off to a single running back (often two running backs are in the backfield in a standard offense), a triple option typically includes three backs in the backfield. The quarterback might fake a handoff to one back, and then run to the right before pitching the ball to another back.

    Very few teams in college football use the triple option. Army is one of them.

    “The challenge for us is to come off a game and then go out and get prepared this week (for) something we don’t see with the triple option offense,” Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the Eastern Illinois game.

    Because of its infrequent use, it can be difficult for teams to prepare to defend the triple option; no teams in the Big Ten use the triple option, so Northwestern rarely is forced to defend the scheme. This Saturday, the ‘Cats will line up against Army quarterback Trent Steelman — the team’s leading rusher with 194 yards and four touchdowns so far this season — and his arsenal of backs.

    Teams that employ the triple option tend to use a lot of misdirection, which is often a characteristic of the spread offense. But the typical triple option does not use a shotgun formation like the standard spread; rather, the quarterback lines up under center with three backs behind him. The misdirection can make life very difficult for a defense, especially one that is inexperienced against the option run like Northwestern. However, the ‘Cats can point to their success in stopping the run this season as one reason why they should be able to contain Army’s offense. Outside of a couple big run plays the defense has given up, the rush defense has been consistent so far, although Army will likely be the biggest challenge yet.

    The good news for the ‘Cats? The triple option offense is typically very one-dimensional, which means very little pass defense will be required. So far this season, Northwestern’s defense has struggled at times defending the pass, but has been very good for the most part defending the run. So far, in two games, Army has thrown the ball a total of 23 times for only 149 yards and one touchdown. To put that number in perspective, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots threw for 517 yards and four touchdowns on 48 attempts in a single game this past Monday night. That’s nearly double the attempts in half of the game time.

    Army’s quarterbacks do not exactly resemble Tom Brady, but Northwestern will be able to place a much greater emphasis this week on Army’s rushing attack, even if it is an unorthodox way of running the football. The Black Knights have totaled 140 carries so far this season, which is the highest number in the country by 19 carries (incidentally Northwestern is actually second in the country with 121 carries). Army has also rushed for 706 yards; only Navy has rushed for more yards so far this season. Perhaps not coincidentally, Navy also uses a triple option offense.

    When Northwestern takes the field in West Point this Saturday, a lot of focus will likely be on the quarterback position, and whether Dan Persa or Kain Colter will start the game. But whether the ‘Cats leave the field victorious may very well come down to the ability of the Wildcat defense to stop Army’s triple option.


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