PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s defense will face a unique challenge this Saturday at Heinz Field. The visiting Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are one of the handful of teams that utilize the triple option as their primary offense, and it can be a challenge to adjust.
The version of the triple option (or flexbone, if you prefer) that the Yellow Jackets run involves a quarterback, a running back (they call him a fullback) and two slotbacks, which are typically wide receiver-type players, but are also utilized in the running game. Here’s a typical Georgia Tech set.
On any given play, the quarterback can hand of to the fullback, pitch it to the slot back on his side of the field or keep it himself — hence the name triple option.
That type of action is difficult to simulate in practice conditions, so as they did a year ago, the Panthers have scrapped their usual scout team quarterback Bo Schneider in favor of a more athletic player.
Last year, then-freshman cornerback Dane Jackson played the role of Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds in the team’s bowl prep, as Navy runs the same offense as Georgia Tech. This year, it’s freshman corner Therran Coleman that will get the majority of those snaps.
“You get some guys back there that can run,” said defensive coordinator Josh Conklin. “We’re trying to read it as much as we can and not just give the dive or pitch it. … He said he could do it, so we kind of said, ‘OK.’ During fall camp, we kind of went around and we had each guy kind of try out a little bit.”
Coleman has experience in the option, as he ran it last year as the quarterback at Brashear High School.
“We’ve worked it a lot during fall camp and we tried to give some guys some different looks and see who could do the quarterback and we thought that he was probably the best at it,” Conklin said. “We knew coming into the week that he’d be the guy.”
That time in fall camp was utilized for more than just identifying who would play scout team quarterback this week. Embarrassed by over 1,000 yards of total offense in two games against the Yellow Jackets and Midshipmen a year ago, Pat Narduzzi and Conklin came up with a new game plan to attack the option this season.
“That was part of our evaluation (of 2015). We knew coming into the season that we’d had that we’d taken 100 reps of triple option because of the bowl prep. It was just really locked into what we wanted to do,” Conklin said. “Some of the people that we talked to, they said that one thing that they did a lot of at fall camp.”
So the team started working on the option way back at training camp in 2016, with the idea of maintaining the increased focus created against Navy. But it will still be a stiff challenge to prepare.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Conklin said. “You try to get the best guys you have at quarterback or offensive line, but it’s such a different scheme what they do and what they’re asking their guys to do. To get coached up, if we have success and end up winning the game, you can almost give the game ball to those guys — that scout team — as far as what they’re able to do and if they can get it done like it needs to be seen.”
In addition to a new approach, the Panthers have some new-found speed on defense in 2016, as well. Linebackers Seun Idowu and Saleem Brightwell bring a significant increase in athleticism to their position, and will be relied upon to fill big roles Saturday.
“Being a little bit more athletic out there definitely helps you,” Conklin said. “But then again, so much of it comes down to technique, the fundamentals, what you’re looking at, how you’re seeing it and how you’re playing it. … There’s no doubt if you’re a step wrong, if you have a more athletic guy, he can recover.”
Idowu and Brightwell will be joined by two players at the position that saw first-hand what can happen against the triple option: seniors Bam Bradley and Matt Galambos.
“The coaches have been throwing little bits and pieces here and there in practices all year,” Bradley said. “I feel that we’re more in tune with what they’re going to try to do to us, being that we’ve seen it a couple times where we’re vulnerable, what they’re trying to get done with their blocking schemes, that kind of stuff.”
They key for the Panthers will be limiting the big play. Against Navy in the Military Bowl, more often than not, they came via passes. Against Georgia Tech last year, there were some big running plays. But in the mind of Georgia Tech head coach and option guru Paul Johnson, there weren’t enough.
“You have to score when you get a chance to make good plays,” Johnson said in his teleconference Wednesday. “When teams are as aggressive as they are, when you catch them, you have to make big plays. And sometimes we didn’t finish (last year against Pitt).”
Pitt won the game on a last-second Chris Blewitt field goal, and while the Panthers couldn’t stop the Georgia Tech offense with their defense very often, they did a good job of keeping the Yellow Jackets off the field by racking up an 8-minute, 4-second time-of-possession advantage.
“We had a hard time getting them off the field,” Johnson said. “They were really good at staying on the field offensively and controlling the clock and doing that kind of thing. You know, it was a really close game. I think the two teams were fairly evenly matched.”