There is no doubt one of the ultimate joys of playing in the ACC Coastal Division is a yearly matchup with the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech. GT runs one of the most annoying offensives to game plan and play for- the triple option. This option attack features a “ground and pound” style of offense, with A-Backs and B-Backs ready to grind out a win, one yard at a time. Preparing for the option is very hard, because in essence you have to throw out your entire playbook and focus defensively on defending the gap in front of you, taking away the dive play, and tackling well, especially on the perimeter. All the adjustments that have to be made for the triple option is the reason why many teams schedule a bye week before their Georgia Tech game, like the Tar Heels did, to implement the new game plan and focus on the basics of guarding the deathly triple option.
As far as adjustments go, there are many to make from a week of a standard, passing attack that Middle Tennessee State uses to a triple option team. The first of three major adjustments that have to be made is focusing on good tackling. What the triple option does to defenses is that it forces them into one on one matchups, one defender on one gap or one player. Any time an opposing player steps into the defensive player’s gap, they have to tackle them, and tackle them hard. If tackles are missed, that’s when a five yard run turns into a 30 yard or touchdown run. Tackling is even more important on the perimeter because there is more space on the perimeter, and thus more ground for the defense to cover, and more ground for the offense to use. One missed tackle and the guy is surely gone and off for a long play. One way to help yourself out on the perimeter is forcing the runner back to the middle. Keeping the runner in between the hash marks gives an opportunity for more of the defense to make a tackle. If the runner gets the outside and there is a missed tackle, its six points every time.
The second adjustment to make is forcing the quarterback to make plays. In the most basic triple option sets, the quarterback is always one of the three “options” for the offense. The first option is the dive play, where the QB hands the ball right to the back behind him, who in turn drives through the gap next to the center. The second part of the option is the QB faking that handoff and springing to the outside for a QB sneak. The third option would be a QB pitch to another running back, who is ready to take off if the defense bites too hard on the QB threat. If UNC can make the quarterback, Hillside product Vad Lee, be the one carrying the ball, by the end of the game that will catch up to him. Every hit and hard tackle takes its toll, and by the fourth quarter Lee may be more likely to just hand the ball to the fullback for the dive play than springing out for the pitch. The keys to executing this plan are throwing an extra safety or linebacker right up the middle to clog the gap where the fullback dives, and by taking away the pitch man when the QB keeps it. If the Heels defense can execute this plan, it will help a lot in the waning moments of the game.
Finally, the best defense against the triple option is a good offense. Keeping the ball, sustaining long drives, and getting ahead will do wonders for the defense. First of all, GT loves to dominate time of possession. They would keep the ball all day if you let them. But if UNC can sustain long drives and eat some clock, it will keep the defense on the bench resting and keep the ball out of Vad Lee’s hands. Also, getting ahead in the second half is a big part of stopping the option as well. If GT is down three scores in the fourth quarter, they are forced out of their comfort zone and have to throw the ball. Tech is much more vulnerable when passing and playing from behind, so the offense playing well and keeping the ball is very important.
Everyone remembers last season’s debacle at Kenan Stadium. The Yellow Jackets put up 62 points against a thin North Carolina defense in route to a big win. The defense in that game for UNC was atrocious, and you can bet that the Heel’s coaches have reminded the UNC defenders about that game. But if UNC tackles well on defense and consistently wins one on one battles on the perimeter, the Heels could be looking at a win on the road in Atlanta.