26 June 2008

The Rivalry Classics - Life's a Pitch

A Short History of the Option

Formations are vital in life. Whether formatting an argument for a legal brief or doing backyard landscaping, creating some kind of cohesive foundation is key. In 2008, this analogy holds true in college football, but not in the traditional sense. Offensive formations are more important than ever, but they are being skewered like never before. "Anything goes" is the philosophy in the many spread offense formations that exist. Ingenius coaches strive to go against traditional offense philosophies. Example: Up until a couple years ago, everyone knew that running effectively out of the shotgun was a challenge, much less having a run-based offense out of the shotgun. Now? Watch West Virginia (a team that runs 75% of the time) ride their shotgun offense all the way to the top of the Big East.

But 30 years ago, one formation unequivocally dominated the landscape of college football. Known simply as "The Option," the philosophy of power running and multiple threats led programs like Nebraska and Michigan to perennial success. Discussing the specifics of the option would take an entire book, so I will settle for a short history of this groundbreaking offense, including discussion of the best players to run the offense and the evolution of the option philosophy.

The option has always intrigued me. The pitching, the misdirection, the grainy footage of Mike Rozier running over and around defenders...it all pulls me in. The quickness needed for decision making? Thrilling. A typical thought bubble for an option QB:

Take the snap. Turn to fullback; is the defensive tackle too far outside the center? No. Fake the dive, sprint outside. Is the defensive end taking the RB, going for me, or hedging his bets and waiting? He's hedging his bets; keep sprinting out wide. Is the cornerback blocked? No, he's focusing on the RB. Fake the pitch and follow my blockers. (SMACK) Damn, forgot about the outside linebacker.

Longhorn Enginuity and The Big O

Creating a solid offensive formation before the 1970's was no groundbreaking feat. The Wing T and the Single Wing (created by the iconic Pop Warner, pictured on the right) offenses dominated almost every level of football. Teams concentrated on running effectively, with the running back's either receiving the snap directly from the center or the quarterback carrying out multiple fakes to each running back. Much of the offensive action was concentrated between the tackle's; spreading out a defense was left to the vaunted sweep.

When Emory Bellard, the Offensive Coordinator at University of Texas in 1968, created a version of the wishbone/option, skepticism didn't even have a chance to rear its ugly head because success came so quickly. The Longhorns overran their competition on the way to two National Championships in the next 3 years.

Naturally, all the top programs followed suit. The Oklahoma Sooners set the all time NCAA team rushing record in 1971, using a wishbone/option offensive formation. The Michigan Wolverines followed the option to a 96-16-3 record in the 1970's. This link gives a great example of Michigan running their version of the option and the overloaded wishbone. At the 1:22 mark, watch the quarterback go down the line, waiting to make his decision to pitch or run. This link also gives a great visual of how coaches still used the quarterback to block, an idea laughed at now. At the :28 mark, watch the quarterback pitch back and then dive into the line, looking for someone to hit.

I call the original version of the Option "The Big O" because of its overloading qualities. Sometimes (if penetration was cut off by the offensive line) 4 running backs would end up sprinting to the exact some place, three as blockers and one carrying the ball. But the overloading advantages were not the only quality of this formation that made it so effective. Each running back was an option on every play, making it harder for the defense to key on one threat.

The real key was the fullback though. The fullback, typically lined 2-3 yards behind the quarterback, was an option to dive on every play; as one coach commented, "The fullback’s aim point is the crack of the play side guard’s rear end." The defense had to expend 1-2 players to stop the fullback on every play. And if you couldn't stop the option, your day was over, because the fullback was going to keep coming, getting 3-7 yards on every play.

Turner Gill

The evolution of the option continued into the 1980's with the introduction of an athletic quarterback into the option offense. This new option was best exemplified by the athleticism and ingenuity of the 1983 Nebraska Cornhhuskers. Mike Rozier, the Heisman winner, headlined this team, but what will really jump out at you is the way quarterback Turner Gill is used. At the 3:02 and 3:47 marks, watch the Huckers line up in a typical option formation, only to have Gill fake option dives and pitches to the backs and throw downfield passes, normally reserved for I-Form or Pro-Form offenses. This altered option alleviated the need for three running backs in the backfield and opened up the chance for downfield passes.

Veering On

The Veer Option was just another step in the evolution of this never simple offensive formation. The Veer is by no means easy to run, but the concept is simple. Take the running back (who in the traditional option was behind the quarterback) and place him on the wing. Pre-snap, put the RB in motion and then run the typical option.

Georgia Southern, a I-AA powerhouse, put the Veer on a national level in the 1990's, and the service academies followed suit (Navy Pounding Notre Dame with the Veer, pictured to the right). And although it has never been popular at the top BCS schools, most programs instituted some of the Veer into their option formations during the heyday of the option. The magic of the Veer is that is creates great, gashing angles; the running start that the running back gets allows him to cut violently around the edge of the defense.

The Rich Rod Specialty

One can see that the option refuses to be a static offense. Just when you think you have got the concept, a new wrinkle is thrown in. This is exactly what that coaches that run the option want. Rich Rodriguez, the Michigan head coach, created an option attack from the shotgun spread. Rodriguez's offense instituted veer components, but stuck to the main idea of the option: dive option, outside/inside QB run, pitch to RB. (Watch Pat White at the :17 mark).

Defending the Formation

How does one defend this quick-hitting offense? The same way you defend any other offense: Bigger, faster athletes. The option dive is a whole lot less intimidating when teams like Miami (FL) put 300 lb. nose tackles to clog up the middle and stop the dive. And the pitch is a lot less devastating when fast cornerbacks can keep the running backs from getting to the outside.

The option has been much less popular in college football since the early 1990's. This is true for a number of reasons.

  1. Teams began instituting huge lineman to stop the dive.
  2. The rise of the spread passing offense.
  3. Top QB recruits want to go play in the NFL and the NFL likes passing QB's. Top QB recruits would lean towards a program that passed more.
  4. Modern athletes can recover quicker from a misdirecting offense than athletes in the 1970's.
  5. The option offense is much more effective for the run.

Giving it the Ol' College Try

The programs and spirit of college football are becoming more like the NFL each year. College offenses can rival their NFL counterparts in complexity. College football recruiting is a multi-million dollar business and team facilities are 100 million dollar wonderlands. But while the professional teams sit in their spread passing offenses and I formations, many college programs choose to wind back the clock to the 1970's and allow their philosophy to be influenced by the spirits of the wishbone, the triple option, and the fullback dive. Judging by the respect given to the option by coaches like Bill Walker, Urban Meyer, and Rich Rodriguez, the option will not just exist on ESPN Classic, but continue to be a dynamic and important part of college football.

1 comment:

Bradley L. Cromes said...

You two are doing a wonderful job with the pithy titles. Kudos.