By: Marshall Hastings
At one time in football, coaches, players and fans were not enamored with passing the ball. In fact, it was an oddity to think about. In the 1940’s, the Army Black Knights won three consecutive National Championships using the split-T option offense. In the late 1940’s, Notre Dame utilized the split-T to reel off four straight undefeated seasons, the longest winning streak in college football history.
But alas, the days of the option run have diminished As we watch Peyton Manning throw for seven touchdowns in the NFL season opener, Tom Brady fire 50 touchdown passes in a single season, and Drew Brees set the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, it’s hard to imagine football without the pass.
But take one look at the Springfield College football team, and you’re jolted back to the good old days of football, back to the days of the triple option.
In the split-T, three running backs, two halfbacks and one fullback line up in a line about five yards behind the quarterback, who is under center. After snapping the ball, the quarterback reads the defensive end. If the end stays on the line of scrimmage, the quarterback gives it to the fullback. If the end crashes on the fullback, the quarterback will keep the ball and sprint to the edge. Once on the edge, the quarterback can pitch to the halfback running alongside him, or keep the ball and sprint up field.
At Springfield, head coach Mike DeLong and staff teach the split-T option, but also use a formation known as the “shoot” formation, where the running backs line up one yard behind the tackle and line their inside foot on the tackle’s outside foot. From this spot, the running back can motion back to get in pitch relationship or go down field and block.
“The option is an execution based offense versus a play calling [offense],” said DeLong. “There are no secrets. The whole thing with the option is your ability to execute all three phases: the dive, the quarterback, the pitch and to have a weapon at all three phases: a fullback who can carry, a quarterback who can carry and a pitch back who can carry.”
With the ability to run the ball up the middle, and two options to run to the outside, teams have extreme difficulty stopping the run.
Since 2006, Springfield has averaged 349.7 rushing yards per game while going over 4,000 rushing yards in a single season three times and averaging over 370 rushing yards per game three times as well. This season, Springfield leads the nation in total rushing yards with 1,171 yards, while they are second in the nation in average yards per game with 390.3.
“On paper, with the option, if it’s read correctly you never really have a bad play called, but you still have to execute the play correctly, your line still has to block, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback,” continued DeLong. “The quarterback has to be able to read and he has to be able to make his decisions split second, and once he makes his decision mentally, he has to physically execute whether [to] pitch the ball or run with the ball.”
The option gives Springfield a distinct advantage against opposing defenses, letting the Pride utilize their speed and athleticism in the backfield and on the offensive line where they are often undersized.
But while speed and athleticism help Springfield dominate their opponents, the biggest factor is their toughness.
“[It takes] a tough kid,” DeLong said. “Hopefully with some speed and athleticism. But above all I think it takes a tough, tough kid. Both halfbacks have to block as well as run with it, the fullback is running inside and again we’re not blocking a dive key, so he’s got to be a tough, hard-nosed kid. The quarterback has to be a tough kid because he’s going to get hit. It’s an offense where it requires the quarterback, even if he gives the ball to the fullback, to carry out the fake which he’s going to get hit. So again it’s an offense that takes toughness.”
With the option, Springfield also gives themselves a strategic advantage, often accounting for every single player on the defensive side of the ball.
“Strategically we can go towards the boundary the way certain defenses are run,” senior Joel Altavesta pointed out. “Against a 4-3 defense, everyone is blocked except the dive key and the pitch key. In a 4-4 defense, the safety is unblocked so that guy can have a huge game, with a ton of tackles, but there are chances when he’s not going to be there and we are going to get a big play.”
Although the NFL appears to be a passing league, the option run has slowly trickled its way into the fabric of America’s most polarizing sport.
In San Francisco, the 49ers rode a young, unproven Colin Kaepernick to a Super Bowl appearance in favor of former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith. In Washington, the Redskins traded multiple draft picks to take Robert Griffin III second overall, who proceeded to lead them to an NFC East title.
Even in Seattle, where the Seahawks have hung their hat on their ferocious defense, they relied on Russell Wilson and the read option to attack defenses, leading to an appearance in the NFC Divisional Round a year ago.
“What they’re doing, it’s done from a different formation but it’s still the old stuff,” DeLong notes. “I would call it a pretty option, instead of under center, they’ve made it a pretty look from the shotgun.”
While San Francisco and Washington, among others, did experience success with the option offense, the risk of injury to a team’s multimillion dollar quarterback still exists, as seen by RGIII’s gruesome knee injury in the NFC postseason and his struggles to begin the 2013-14 season.
While the injury threat still exists, do not expect to see Springfield College to start throwing the football all over the field any time soon.
“One thing teams stay away from is risking your quarterback,” said DeLong. “Even in the NFL, with RGIII, his knee was bent pretty bad. Here we just have to do what we have to do to be competitive.”
The Pride will continue to stick to the option attack and wear down defenses. It’s old school football from an old school coach.