Last Saturday, at Whiskey's request, I set my DVR for 10:00 A.M. Mountain time and proceeded to record the Navy-Air Force game so that I could scout it later and write this post for OFD. My original plan was to watch some other games while the DVR recorded the Navy-Air Force contest for future analysis. I ended up sitting mesmerized, for almost four hours, fascinated by the events that unfolded before me in the Navy-Air Force game. It was easily the best game of the day. What else could a fan ask for?
You had a tremendous second half come back by Navy (which I thought almost impossible given their ground oriented attack), two fourth quarter scoring drives by Navy punctuated by a perfectly executed onside kick and regulation play capped off with a Navy do-or-die two point conversion. If that wasn't enough, how about overtime! I think I will refrain from commenting on the overtime events because I think that kid from Navy has probably had a miserable enough week already. We all saw what happened.
Before I launch into my scouting report, I feel a compulsion to comment on one startling statistic from the game. In regulation play, Air Force ran only 47 plays from scrimmage (including the final knee taken when the clock ran out). Navy ran 98 plays! Yet the teams were tied at the end of regulation play! Not only that, but I had to extend the recording on my DVR because the three and a half hours that the network allotted for the game was not enough! I figured this game would be over in about two hours, given the ground oriented attacks of each team.
Also, before I begin, let me say for the sake of coming comments and discussion, that I really don't want to get hung up on terminology. Terminology varies from coach to coach, program to program and certainly from the younger generation to us older guys. Whiskey trusts me to do this because I was once a head football coach and my teams ran the wishbone and we also had the misfortune of having to defend it a few times.
That said, what about Air Force? Everyone seems to want to call them a "Triple Option" team, especially TV commentators, but I saw something very different on Saturday. As I try to relate to everyone what I saw, please understand that I am doing this with a DVR and TV remote, not the most efficient tools for breaking down game film. So, I am not always 100% sure that I saw what I think I saw. Let me list below some things that I saw:
The FB Dive Option - Again, different people call this play different things. This play is Navy's bread and butter. Fullback blows into B gap off of the guard's outside cheek. Next down d-lineman is left unblocked and quarterback reads him and decides whether to give to FB or keep. If he keeps, then the QB has to decide whether to run or pitch. You know the drill. I did not watch Navy's offense on Saturday, because my assignment was to watch Air Force.
But...if Navy ran 98 plays in regulation play on Saturday and another 5 or 6 in overtime, then I guess they probably ran this Dive Option (triple Option) play about 40 or 50 times at least. In 47 plays, I saw Air Force run this play exactly 2 times. That's right, I said 2 times. One time the QB kept the ball and turned up for an 11 yard gain. Another time, the play side OLB ran in and blew up the play in the backfield for a loss. I have only seen Air Force run 47 offensive plays this year (plus 3 more in overtime). Maybe this play is an integral part of their offensive attack, but I saw no evidence of it on Saturday.
The Fullback Dive - Air Force ran the Fullback Dive, in A gap, 12 times on Saturday. I did not try to keep statistics, but they got pretty good mileage out of it...3,4,5 yards a pop. They employ two fullbacks, #s 25 and 35, and they are both good, hard nosed fullbacks. They run this play with a couple of subtle variances. Sometimes, the quarterback opens up and hands the ball on a quick hitting play like the old Fullback trap play. Sometimes the QB takes the ball to the Fullback and gives it to him deeper in the backfield. The play always seems to be run in A gap and always behind plain old base blocking. It appears that the fullback might be reading the center's block and running to the A gap opposite of where the Center pushes the noseman. There is no veer blocking here, so the QB is not reading anything...he is just giving the ball to the Fullback.
The Quarterback Sweep - I call this play a Quarterback Sweep. I am sure there are many folks out there who want to call this play a speed option or down-the-line option. In my humble opinion, Air Force Quarterback Tim Jefferson has no intention of pitching the ball. He has every intention of carrying it himself and I believe this is what the Air Force coaching staff wants him to do. Jefferson is their best athlete and the AF staff wants him to tote the pigskin. Makes sense. Quarterback comes down the line with the Fullback as a lead blocker on the perimeter and a pitch man trailing. For the sake of giving defenses a slightly different look, Jefferson will sometimes make a half hearted attempt at faking to the fullback as he goes by, but this is strictly a QB run to the perimeter all the way. Air Force had little success with this play on Saturday, but they ran it 9 times anyway. They continued to run it because Jefferson is their best athlete and this play is one of the staples of their offense.
The Quarterback Trail - I'm not sure what the actual name of this play is so I'll call it the Quarterback Trail. On this play, the QB fakes the ball to the FB and then follows him through the hole. Air Force ran this play 4 times on Saturday with moderate success and one touchdown. They will run it in A, B or C gap. Again, another way for #7 to carry the mail.
The Tailback Lead - Air Force ran the Tail Back Lead play 4 times on Saturday with very good success and a 23 yard touchdown run by their tail back, #17, Asher Clark. Clark is a good back. He is dangerous. But, Air Force elected to run this play only 4 times on Saturday. They run this play out of, what I call, their Capital I formation where they have three backs stacked behind the QB. #17 is the deep back and ball carrier, the fullback is the lead blocker and the middle guy, #15 does some weird thing where he steps one way and then runs the other way like he is going to do I don't know what. I'm surprised they can run this play without #15 getting in the way of the ball carrier.
Air Force also runs a play to #17 out of a formation where he is the lone setback. They give him the ball in C gap with the play side guard pulling and kicking out the OLB (this is called a G-block). They had good success with this play as well. Again, #17 is a good back.
Reverse Option Pitch - This is a play that I just made up a name for. I have no idea what it is called and no idea what the play is designed to do. It is awkward and somewhat bizarre looking and there is all kinds of motion going on in the backfield. It is difficult to describe, but I will give it my best shot. Maybe Whiskey can use some of his techno-skills and draw it for you. They run the play out of their inverted wishbone formation with fullback and two slotbacks. One slotback starts in motion to the opposite side of the formation, like he is going to become the pitch man on the option play. When the play begins, the fullback dives into B gap on the side where the motion man came from. The opposite slotback, on the snap, comes back around all of this action and becomes the actual pitchman and ball carrier heading in the direction that the original motion back came from. The quarterback opens up toward the fullback and then makes a poor fake at a pitch to the motion man like a toss sweep. Then the QB heads back in the direction that the motion back came from and pitches the ball to the opposite slotback. Did you keep up with all that? As I said, it is bizarre and looks very awkward, but I'll bet that safeties and inside LB's go cross-eyed trying to keep up with all the backfield motion. Bottom line is that Air Force ran this play 4 times for about 80 yards and a touchdown. #16 was the pitch man once and carried for about 21 yards. #17 carried the ball on this play once for 47 yards. And, I think #17 also carried the ball on this play once for a 6 yard touchdown run. I don't know what else to say about this play. It is interesting, to say the least, and Air Force had great success with it.
Passes - I counted ten passes that Air Force threw in this game. They ran the Dive Option pass twice and the straight drop back pass 8 times. Overall they went 9 for 10 in their passing game. Pretty effective. They like to throw the ball to their big split end, #85, behind the corner in Cover 2. They also like to throw the ball to their slot guy, #15 under the safeties in Cover 2. One such pass to #27 went for 53 yards and a TD. Interestingly, when it came down to fish or cut bait time in overtime, Air Force came out throwing the ball.
Formations - Formations are what make Air Force's offense interesting. It would be an understatement to say that they use a lot of them and some of them are quite unusual. I presume that the inverted wishbone formation with two slots is their base formation. They are also the only team I know of that runs the Capital I or Stacked I formation. They ran an unbalanced line several times against Navy. They run a number of variations of their inverted wishbone set, with wide split ends, tighter split ends, slots and twins. Tight ends are virtually nonexistent in the Air Force scheme.
Interestingly, when they got in some of their unbalanced formations, I had a hard time seeing who was on the line of scrimmage and who was off the line of scrimmage. I am pretty sure I saw 9 guys on the line of scrimmage a couple of times and had to rub my old eyes and look again. I doubted what I was seeing until the TV guys laid the blue scrimmage line on the screen and, sure enough, I am seeing 9 guys on it. Certainly, this must have been some sort of warped TV perception, or the referees didn't seem to care. I know for sure that on at least two occasions, I saw Air Force line up with what appeared to be twin split receivers, but they were both on the line of scrimmage. They did this twice, and the inside guy cracked back on an outside linebacker. Anyway, determining who is on the line of scrimmage is important information for defensive backs who need to know which players are eligible receivers and which are not.
During the game, one of the commentators said that an Air Force assistant coach commented that head coach, Troy Calhoun "does an excellent job of making you chase ghosts." I agree completely. During the course of Saturday's game, I'm sure I saw Air Force display a much larger variety of formations than they did plays. Air Force runs a few plays out of a lot of different formations, many of them somewhat bizarre. The result is that defenses spend an undue amount of time preparing for, and worrying about, formations and not enough time preparing to deal with the hand full of plays that Air Force runs. So, yes, defenses end up "chasing ghosts".
So, what's the summary of this scouting report? 1. As I just said, Air Force likes to run a very few plays out a lot of formations. They want to confuse you and keep you off balance with their sets and a lot of motion in the backfield. 2. Quarterback Tim Jefferson #7 is their best player and they want him to carry the ball. 3. They like to hand the ball up the middle in A gap to their fullbacks and just play smash mouth football. 4. They are not really an "option" team like Navy. Jefferson is not reading anything and ball carriers on each play are predetermined. 5. They don't throw the ball much, but they can lull you to sleep and be very effective throwing the ball. Their passing game is minimal and very simple. 6. Asher Clark #17 is a good running back and he can hurt you if you get too consumed trying to keep the Fullbacks and Quarterback in check.
What should Notre Dame do about the Air Force attack? Again, I spent several hours on this assignment and was growing a little weary toward the end, so my play count may be off by one or two plays here and there. But, by my count, Air Force ran 37 running plays against Navy and the Fullbacks or the Quarterback carried the ball 28 of those 37 plays. This is what Air Force wants to do.
Now, I am going to say the same things that I said last year before ND played Navy. There are those out there who disagree with me, but I know from experience that Notre Dame has to pinch their Defensive Ends hard into B gap and let them and Nix take away the Fullback dive. Notre Dame's outside linebackers should run hard into the backfield looking to to blow up #7 right now. They should not run up field, but straight at #7. This should be an easy assignment for those OLBs because Air Force never runs tight end sets. It should be open season on Jefferson for Notre Dame's OLBs. Notre Dame has superior athletes up front and should dominate the line of scrimmage if they play it this way. Notre Dame should press the issue with their front 5 guys and let their inside linebackers clean up inside, when necessary, but otherwise run to the pitchman and tailback.
I know some of you are asking yourself what help it will be for ND's Defensive Ends to pinch hard into B gap if Air Force like to run their fullback in A gap. Well, if the Offensive Guards are going to fire straight out on ND's Inside Linebackers, then ND's Ends will pinch unobstructed to the fullback. I guarantee you that if ND pinches their Defensive Ends this way, a guy like Aaron Lynch will feast on those fullbacks. That will force the Offensive Guards to start turning out on the Defensive Ends and thus turn the Inside Linebackers loose to deal with the fullback. If I was Notre Dame's DC, I think I would slant the Nose into one A gap occasionally and run blitz an ILB into the other A gap for disruption. I would bet that Notre Dame could do this all day long and let Manti Te'o and Harrison Smith clean up on the perimeter. As long as they are disciplined and don't over pursue, pursuing underneath from inside out, Smith and Te'o will combine for a bunch of tackles on Saturday.
If Notre Dame gets decent coverage out of their corners and their safeties run to the football, Notre Dame should have a successful day on defense. I think that if Notre Dame's Defensive Ends sit on the line of scrimmage and fight with offensive tackles, and their Inside linebackers are expected to shed a guard's base block and handle the fullback dive from five yards deep, then it will be a long day for Notre Dame. Anyway, regardless of how they do it, Notre Dame has got to take away the Fullback dive and the Quarterback. If they do that they will win. Air Force's tailback, #17, is a good back and Air Force does a decent job throwing the ball...but they aren't going to beat anyone relying on #17 and their passing game. They might have some big plays during the game, but they won't beat anyone this way. It's not what they want to do.
O.K., that's my scouting report on the Air Force offense. I enjoyed getting it together. I hope you enjoyed reading it, whether you agree with me or not. I look forward to your comments and questions.