Ask any football coach and he’ll probably tell you that there’s no good time to play a team that runs the triple option.
If it can’t be avoided, as is the case with Wake Forest against Army this week, it always helps to have as much time as possible to prepare for it.
As such, last week’s open date came at an opportune time for the undefeated, 16th-ranked Deacons.
But even with a few extra practices to help familiarize themselves with the intricacies of the Cadets’ confounding offense, which only a handful of FBS teams still use exclusively, Wake coach Dave Clawson knows his defense will have its hands full when it travels to West Point for its final nonconference game of the year on Saturday.
“It’s a tough offense to prepare for,” Clawson said on his coach’s show last week. “It’s an execution-, repetition-based offense that they have all the answers within the play. So you’ve just got to rep the plays over and over and over until your players are reacting, not thinking and processing.”
Clawson knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the triple option. And not just because he’s faced Army three times during his first seven seasons at Wake, going 2-1 including a 31-27 loss at Michie Stadium in 2016.
His first coaching job, at the University of Albany in 1989, was coaching quarterbacks in a wishbone offense. Three years later he was on the same staff at the University of Buffalo as Army coach Jeff Monken, who honed his triple-option skills from one of its most successful practitioners — former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
“Nobody knows this offense better than Paul Johnson. Paul was the master at it … and Jeff is probably as good of a pupil as Paul has had,” Clawson said. “He knows this thing inside and out. They’ll run some formations, run some motion, see how you’ll react to it, and then they’ll get you.”
Like most triple-option offenses, Army relies almost exclusively on the ground game. The Cadets (4-2) come into Saturday’s game ranked second in the nation in rushing offense at 295 yards per game. Quarterback Christian Anderson leads the way, averaging more than 100 yards overall and 7.4 yards per carry.
But as Clawson notes, not all triple options are created equal. Each one has its own individual twist, and the Cadets’ version is no exception.
“Even though it looks a lot different, a lot of the fundamentals of attack are somewhat similar,” the Wake coach said. “Jeff has taken this thing and evolved it 15 times past what we used to do with it. If you’re a football purist, you appreciate it.”
Clawson appreciates it so much he uses his own variation of it with the Deacons.
“We really run the triple option,” Clawson said. “Our triple option is we can hand it off to the back, we can throw it, or the quarterback can run it. The pass part for (Army) becomes the pitch. They formation things and try to create leverage.”
It’s a system that gave Wisconsin fits last week. It took a touchdown with just under three minutes remaining for the Badgers to finally put the Cadets away 20-14.
Wake (6-0) figures to have just as much of a battle in store for it.
Complicating matters is the fact that win or lose, the outcome won’t have any impact on the Deacons’ chances at winning the ACC’s Atlantic Division title. With the most difficult portion of their schedule still to come over the final four weeks of the season, Saturday’s matchup with Army has all the makings of a classic trap game against a team that hasn’t lost at home in nearly two years.
While Clawson is confident in his version of the triple option — a unit that has scored 35 or more points in every game thanks to the versatility of quarterback Sam Hartman, the running back duo of Christian Beal-Smith and Justice Ellison, and talented receivers Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry — it’s Army’s dangerous attack that has him concerned.
He joked that the best way to defend the Cadets is an option that’s not available to him.
“We’d like to be able to sneak a 12th guy on the field,” Clawson said. “I don’t know that we’re going to get away with that, though.”