PITTSBURGH — When it comes to stopping the flexbone triple option offense, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin are getting experienced.
After seeing it for the first time against Georgia Tech in 2015, they got another dose of it against Navy in that year’s Military Bowl and then again when the Yellow Jackets visited Heinz Field in 2016.
As time has gone on, the Panthers have tweaked the way they’ve approached defending the scheme. They now dedicate regular sessions to the defensive style they have to play against the option year-round, starting in the spring and continuing through fall camp and right up into the week of practice preparing for Georgia Tech.
The good news is that they’re getting better. In 2015, Georgia Tech gained 376 yards rushing against Pitt and Navy had 417. Last year, the Panthers held the Yellow Jackets to 241 yards rushing and really shut down the triple-option attack, forcing Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson to revert to a toss-sweep attack instead.
The bad news is that Pitt doesn’t have very many of those players left. Defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett, whose fourth down stop in the fourth quarter set up Chris Blewitt’s game-winning field goal a year ago, is in the NFL. Middle linebacker Matt Galambos, who set up the defense on that play and moved Jarrett into the proper alignment, spent some time with the Steelers this fall.
In fact, Pitt has replaced all four starting defensive linemen and two of the three linebackers from the defense that beat the Yellow Jackets, and what’s left is a lot of inexperience, particularly at some important spots.
But Pitt is bringing back some experience, as well. Jordan Whitehead, fresh off a three-game suspension, will play his first game of the season, but it will be his fourth against the flexbone option.
“This will be his fourth time,” Conklin said. “He’s got a good feel for it. He’s got an understanding of it and I think he’s excited to go run.”
Whitehead’s experience will help on the back end, but when it comes to stopping the triple option, the first and best thing that needs combatted is the dive handoff to the running back. In Pitt’s four-man front, the two defensive tackles will have to take on three offensive linemen and win the battle quickly enough to stop the “B-back,” which is analogous to a tailback, from running right past them.
That job will fall to a combination of players, because Pitt has been rotating pretty heavily on the defensive line. Kam Carter, Keyshon Camp, Shane Roy, Amir Watts and Rashad Weaver have all gotten playing time the first three weeks. But while they are many in number, their experience is limited across the board, making this week a big challenge for the youngsters.
“They have to embrace it,” Conklin said. “Because you’re re-teaching them some different techniques. We’re getting vertical penetration to the ball. In the option game, everything needs to happen a little more flat and they do have to have a great game. They have to do a great job of getting their hands on people. They have to have a great job of being sturdy in there.”
From there, the challenge goes to the middle linebacker, who is responsible for keeping track of the quarterback.
“With what we do schematically, the Mike linebacker has to have a big day,” Conklin said.
That responsibility will fall to Saleem Brightwell. Brightwell didn’t play against Georgia Tech last year, and he was an outside linebacker, then, anyway. Brightwell’s speed an athleticism compare favorably to Galambos, but stopping the option is about discipline and reading keys, something Galambos excelled at. If Brightwell has a big day, it’s a great sign for the Pitt defense that its leader in the middle has matured from an athlete to a complete player at the “Mike” spot.
Outboard of Brightwell, Seun Idowu will be getting his second crack at the Yellow Jackets while Elijah Zeise and a mostly inexperienced set of defensive ends try to set the edge. Here’s Idowu and Rashad Weaver about the challenges the face with the triple option.
When Georgia Tech turned to the toss play last season after Pitt shut down the option, that caught the Panthers by surprise. They’ve mixed in a heavy dose of that on their scout team this week and think they have it figured out.
“We’re going to stop that toss play this year out of that formation,” Narduzzi said definitively on Thursday. But he doesn’t expect that to the be the end of it.
“We’ve just got to be to adjust to what they do,” he said. “They’re gonna do something different. (The toss last year) was something different than we practiced. We hadn’t seen it and it’s hard to switch like that. We made some plays on it, but they wore us out. They’re going to wear us out on a different play. We’ve got that defended. Paul, if you’re listening, we’ve got that defended, I think.”
Now the issue Narduzzi and Conklin have is trying to figure out what the adjustment will be to their adjustment in an X’s and O’s version of spy vs. spy.
“If we do this, what is he going to do?” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got to think like they’re thinking. … They know the system. They’ve been doing it for years and years.”