ASU’s challenge: Limiting Navy’s option attack

TEMPE, Ariz. —
Arizona State coach Todd Graham has made it no secret that his team is having difficulty simulating Navy’s triple-option offense in preparation for the Dec. 29 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. He has brought it up more than once.

“We’ve kind of almost walked through it and then sped it up,” Graham said this week. “Obviously we’re not simulating it very good, but our guys have a good concept (of it).”

This is not much of a surprise, however, considering only four FBS teams — Georgia Tech and all three service academies — run a true triple-option offense. In the Pac-12, ASU typically sees only spread or pro-style offenses.

So just how do the Devils go about stopping — or at least limiting — the run-based offense that gave the Midshipmen the sixth-best ground attack in the FBS this season? The consensus among players and coaches is that it boils down to extraordinary assignment soundness.

“What they do is completely different than anything we’ve seen, but the key is to do what we do,” Graham said. “We’re not going to put on some gimmick defense to stop what they’re doing. We’re going to run what we run, and we’ve got to be disciplined and assignment-oriented.”

ASU fans have come to equate “discipline” on Graham’s team with limiting penalties. In this game, however, discipline will also mean each defensive player doing his specific job and not trying to do anyone else’s.

“When they score, when they get a big play, it’s because somebody (on defense) didn’t do their assignment,” freshman nose tackle Jaxon Hood said. “Someone freelanced something or thought something instead of knew. You’ve just got to focus and do your job.”

The triple option is predicated on the quarterback’s ability to read the opposing defense and make snap decisions. In Navy’s flexbone-style triple option, the quarterback can decide before a play if he, the fullback or one of two “slotbacks” lined up on his left and right near the end of the offensive line will carry the ball. Or, more often, he can decide after the snap based on how he reads the reactions of certain defensive players, particularly the defensive end, who is usually left unblocked.

This flexibility makes Navy’s offense unpredictable in terms of who’s getting the ball but could also give ASU opportunities to force Navy’s hand and adjust accordingly.

“We match up pretty well seeing how they run the ball a lot,” junior linebacker Chris Young said. “That gives us only a couple things to worry about: run, run and run.”

Even so, with as quickly as Navy tries to get the ball across the line of scrimmage on the ground, the Devils’ attacking style, which helped them rank second nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, may be somewhat less effective with so few opportunities for a pass rush.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo knows such and is well aware that running a conventional offense would not work for the undersized Midshipmen.

“We’re hoping because they haven’t seen us that maybe (their) unfamiliarity with what we do will help us, because that’s our only chance,” Niumatalolo said. “If we thought we could line up like a conventional team and run at Will Sutton, try to run the power or something, we’d get killed.”

Thus an unconventional running game going against a defense that gave up 212 yards on the ground to UCLA, 225 to USC, 292 to Arizona and 406 to Oregon could pose a problem for ASU.

“Their strength is a challenge for us,” Graham said, “because if there’s anything we haven’t done as well as where we want to be and where we need to make the most improvement is our run defense.”

ASU’s defense is giving up 172.0 yards per game on the ground, while Navy is averaging 275.6 rushing yards per game. How those numbers translate will depend on how effective the defensive plan proves to be. That plan will also have to include readiness to stop Navy’s passing attack, limited as it may be.

Navy averaged about 13 pass attempts per game this season, with freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds totaling just 884 yards and 56 completions. Still, the Sun Devils know the option is there and must be wary of it. Of those 56 completions, eight went for touchdowns.

“They’ll try to lull you to sleep, running the ball about 10 or 15 times and then throw a pass,” senior cornerback Deveron Carr said. “So it will most definitely challenge our focus and discipline as a team.”

Luckily for ASU, the secondary has been exceptional this season, giving the Sun Devils the top-ranked pass defense in the Pac-12. That could allow ASU to play man coverage outside and devote more attention to the run game.

To the Devils’ benefit has been the amount of time — about a month — they’ve had to prepare and game plan for the unique offense. With the game now about a week away, ASU is still tweaking its defense and the assignments within it, but Graham feels the team is close to being fully prepared to stop the triple option.

“We’re right where we need to be right now,” Graham said Wednesday. “I’m glad we’re not playing tomorrow, but we’re exactly where we need to be.

“They understand that they’ve got a challenge ahead of them.”