Football continues to have success while running the triple-option

Shawn McFarland
@McFarland_Shawn

WPI head football coach Chris Robertson thought he had a game plan. He thought that if he could slow down Springfield College football’s fullbacks, and that his defensive line and linebackers could halt any dive play, the Engineers could potentially hand Springfield College football its first loss of the season.

Instead, his cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers and lineman repeatedly found themselves on the turf, staring upwards at the modern, Division III reincarnation of Notre Dame’s storied Four Horsemen, as they charged down the field for 574 total rushing yards in the Pride’s 42-10 win.

Sure, the quartet of Jordan Wilcox, Tyler Hyde, Hunter Belzo and Jake Eglintine are not Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden – the Fighting Irish backs which sportswriter Grantland Rice donned the equestrian nickname to in 1924. And Pride head coach Mike Cerasuolo is not Hall of Fame coach Knute Rockne.

But they sure have us fooled.

With just one game remaining on the season, the de facto NEWMAC championship game versus MIT on Nov. 11, the 9-0 Pride are the 20th ranked team in Division III, and lead all of college football in rushing yards with 4,133.

Ironically, outside of the conference, not much has changed for the Pride. Springfield jumped from the Liberty League to the top of the NEWMAC, but its on-field strategy has remained the same – the triple-option.

The Pride have developed a reputation for running the wishbone triple-option, as has Georgia Tech, Navy, Maine and The Citadel, among others. At Maine, Springfield alum Joe Harasymiak is the head coach, while fellow alum Lou Conte runs the offense at The Citadel. The counterparts in the offensive scheme have found success too, as Navy ranks second in rushing yards in Division I (2.769) followed closely by Georgia Tech (2.655). The Citadel ranks second in Division IAA in rushing yards (2,940).

Still, none have been as potent as the Pride this year.

Springfield’s success this year is a byproduct of several factors. One is an elite defense, which keeps opposing teams off the field, and the Pride’s offense on. But the other is one that wasn’t created this year. Rather, it’s an ideology which has been instilled in the team from day one of recruiting.

“We look for kids with tremendous attitude and passion for the game,” Cerasuolo said. “Everybody has a system to teach kids to run, block, tackle, and everything else. To us, talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling.”

It may sound like a generic, public relations spin, but for Springfield College football, it’s nothing but the truth. In the triple-option, if one wide receiver misses a block, a fullback could get met at the line by a cornerback. All 11 men on the field have a job to do, and that starts with recruiting teammates, as Cerasuolo explained.

Yes, the team is looking for talented high school players. But coaches pay attention to more than just how many yards and touchdowns someone has. For the most part, the Pride’s offense statistically favors few. Wide receivers don’t come here to catch 70 balls for 800 yards and five touchdowns. No, not at Springfield.

Rather they’re looked upon to block. Play after play. Practice after practice, with the occasional throw over the top added into the playbook. So for Cerasuolo and the rest of the coaches, when they recruit, they’re looking at every minute detail. How are they celebrating? By themselves in the end zone, or with their teammates? How are they acting on the sideline? Are they in their own world, or are they cheering on others, or working cooperatively with the rest of the squad?

“Every kid we’re going to recruit has ability,” Cerasuolo said. “But how much can we get out of that ability? That’s based on the type of kids we recruit. They’ve got to love this college and the atmosphere of Springfield. Football has got to be important. There’s a lot more to football than blocking and tackling. They’ve got to love this, because they’re not going to the NFL from here.”

It’s through that recruiting that Springfield has been able to build one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the nation. Senior quarterback Jake Eglintine is quick, shifty, and can read a defense like no other. Senior fullback Jordan Wilcox is the ideal bellcow, someone who can pound the ball up the middle with ease. Senior halfback Tyler Hyde seems to never miss a block and has improved on the outside, while sophomore halfback Hunter Belzo has top-end speed, and once he find a hole on the outside, paydirt is practically inevitable.

Together, they’ve formed a near-unstoppable offense.

“It starts inside with [Wilcox],” offensive coordinator Greg Webster said. “Then of course the quarterback, too, making the correct decisions. Sometimes teams will play games a little bit, and try to pop in and pop off with the dive keys there, and Jake has done a good job of reading his way through that. When you get a guy like Belzo out on the perimeter with his ability . . . you can’t block everybody.”

Wilcox has taken the role of lead fullback and ran with it, no pun intended. His 1,454 rushing yards rank fifth in the nation, and his 16 scores have him in a tie for ninth. His 7.7 yards per rush may be the safest guarantee in all of college football, as he’s consistently charged up the middle and ripped through the defense for a good gain.

“It starts with the guys up front, they deserve all the credit,” Wilcox said. “Along with that, Hunter and Hyde do a great job with second level blocks to help spring long runs. As an offense, we are just playing together, trusting each other and what we’re being coached.”

In his second season with the Pride, Belzo has gone from “speedy offensive weapon,” to a legitimate well-rounded back – one that’s poised to succeed following the graduation of Wilcox, Hyde and Eglintine. He rushed for 439 yards and four touchdowns last season, and has already eclipsed those numbers this fall (516 rushing yards and seven touchdowns). He’s averaging a team-high 8.1 yards to rush, thanks in part to his ability to break free for lengthy jaunts if he can find a hole on the outside.

He’s reliable (just one fumble on the season) and has even developed as a blocker.

“He’s probably made the most improvement out of any of our halfbacks this year,” Cerasuolo said. “We always tell the kids, ‘Everybody can run with the ball in their hands, but can you do some of the other things as well?’ He was the Offensive Player of the Week [against Merchant Marine] because of his blocking. Any time that someone has been as successful as Jordan has up to this point, there’s a lot other factors contributing.”

Added Hyde, “Adding Belzo to the mix last season just improved us much more. His skill set is unmatched, as you can see from how he’s played these first two seasons. It’s exciting to see what he can do in the future.”

But the success of Wilcox, Belzo and Hyde have been helped by the play of Eglintine, now in his third year at the helm of the triple-option. The 5-foot-9 Eglintine has made a case to be the most agile and athletic back on the roster. His best attribute however, is his ability to read a defense and run the option.

“He’s very smart,” Webster said. “He’s knowledgeable about the game. He picks it up very quickly, as far as game plans, looking at the defense . . . if we don’t have a good look, he can check the play to put us in a better look. I think that’s huge.”

The triple-option, while it may seem simple, is not. But after three years of running it, Eglintine has shown the ability to have a keen sense of when to pitch the ball to one of his three backs, or when to keep it himself (he’s rushed for 739 yards this fall, with 12 touchdowns).

After a standout sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,089 yards, Eglintine was held to just six games as a junior due to injuries. With a clean bill of health as a senior, he’s finally been able to showcase both his natural athletic talent, as well as his high football I.Q.

Wilcox, who’s been Eglintine’s teammate in the backfield since their days at Saratoga Springs High, has been quick to see his quarterback’s development.

“Playing together for the past seven years, he’s developed as a leader, and it shows at practice and on game day,” Wilcox said. “Leading an offense with the most rushing yards in the country and a 9-0 record says everything. Everyone knows when the ball is in his hands, something special is going to happen.”

Yes, everyone is expecting something special when Eglintine is behind center. Just ask any of the nine coaches who have tried and failed to stop the NEWMAC’s top team.

“The offense doesn’t change, the people do,” WPI football coach Chris Robertson said. “You can look at the success of what [Cerasuolo] wants to do based on who he has at the two most critical positions: fullback and quarterback.”
Robertson explained that his defense’s usual gameplan against Springfield is to slow down the fullback. WPI did that to an extent, and held Wilcox to just 84 yards. That day, however, belonged to Eglintine, who rushed for a game-high 139 yards with a touchdown on the ground.

“I’ve coached against all these guys over the years that have been fantastic,” Robertson said. “Eglintine has been in the offense for a while, and he’s got some really good wheels out there.”

But it didn’t stop with Eglintine.

“Beyond that, the premise is to force them to get the ball to the perimeter, and to rally to the pitch,” Robertson continued. He paused, briefly, before recalling the downfall of his Engineer’s defense. “That was 300 yards of their rushing attack.”

It’s been 93 years since Rockne and the Four Horseman left coaches of their time similarly at a loss for words as the Pride have this year. Notre Dame ended their 1924 season 10-0, with a decisive 27-10 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

For Springfield, there won’t be any roses. Just satisfaction.

“The worst feeling in the world is regret,” Hyde explained. “And the idea of ‘what if?’ We made sure that that’s completely eliminated from our mindset and mentality this year.”

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