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How the Army Option Offense Works

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Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bulls should take a 1-0 record (no offense to Duquesne) into their September 6 encounter at West Point against Army. And, on paper, the Bulls should be favored against a program that has won just 20 games in five years. But, playing Army is never an easy thing to do, particularly for the defense.

The Black Knights run the option offense, the veer, the flexbone, or whatever term is the flavor of the day. It’s an offense that is not run by many teams in college football; in fact, only Army, Navy, Air Force and Georgia Tech run it as their primary offense. It’s unique and as they say, very tough to practice against. If you’ve followed college football, you’ve seen Navy run it and run it well against much better teams. The Middies beat Notre Dame twice this century after losing 43 straight times to the Irish. It’s a tough offense, because of the many options the quarterback has. He can keep the ball, give it to the fullback, or a running back, or pass it. Most plays begin with the fullback grabbing the ball. The quarterback puts the ball in the fullback’s belly, then decides right there and then to let him keep it or pull it out. The fullback always thinks he’s getting the ball. Like the spread, all the decision making is placed on the quarterback. Teams that run the option really don’t like passing. If Army throws the ball more than 10 times in a game it’s probably a sign that they’re losing. If option teams aren’t running successfully, they’re in trouble. The Knights can and will run the ball effectively in 2014, unfortunately, for them, it’s their defense that struggles and struggles mightily in this era of college football.

There once was a time when the option offense was prevalent in college football. Bill Yeoman, the former coach at Houston is credited for introducing it in the 1960s. His Cougars played in the old Southwest Conference, where they went up against bigger and stronger teams like Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas. In order to offset that disadvantage, he created an offense of deception and during his tenure the Cougars enjoyed plenty of success. The option offense is designed for teams that have smaller offensive lines, as it can hide apparent weaknesses.

Army, because it’s a service academy has smaller players. For one, there really isn’t a place for 360 pound people at the academy. Remember, these young men are serving a far greater purpose than playing football. These men will be the future generals of the United States Army. David Robinson, the 7 foot 1 basketball Hall of Famer from Navy was just 6 foot 6 when he entered Navy as a freshman. Had he been any taller, he would not have been admitted. So, right there, you can "only be so big," to be in an academy. Army’s offensive line averages just 260 pounds, while Navy’s is 288. Compare that to Notre Dame, which averages 309 pounds and Alabama’s which checks in at 312. On the defensive line, Notre Dame and Alabama average 283 and 313 respectively, so expecting Army to line up in the I-formation and play smashmouth football is just not realistic. Pass blocking is even harder. And, it’s tougher at Army which has more restrictions on height and weight requirements than their service academy brothers Navy and Air Force. There are plenty of college football teams where all five offensive lineman weigh in excess of 300 pounds; there are no 300 pounders at Army.

There was a time where the option offense reigned supreme in college football. Texas and Arkansas ran it in the Southwest Conference, Oklahoma and Nebraska ran it in the Big 8 in 1970s and 80s as did Alabama under Bear Bryant. And, because of all the running, games were much shorter back then, too. But, like the desktop computer and film, both society and college football evolved. The Knights tried to evolve, too. Todd Berry coached Army from 2000-2003 and installed the West Coast offense. It didn’t work, the Knights went 5-35 and Berry was dismissed. Berry landed at Louisiana-Monroe where he has the Warhawks on the move. Army then hired former Georgia Tech and NFL coach Bobby Ross. Ross tried to install the pro style offense and that too, failed. From 2004-2006, the Knights went 9-25. After Ross left, the Knights turned to Rich Ellerson, who had run the option offense quite successfully at FCS Cal Poly, but at Army, Ellerson could only muster one winning season, and worse, went 0-5 against Navy and 20-41 overall.

After Ellerson’s dismissal, the search began for a new coach, and many in Orange County were wondering not only who would take the reigns, but what type of offense would be installed. Would the option remain? On December 24, Jeff Monken was named the new coach. Monken left Georgia Southern to take the job, which struck some as peculiar. The Eagles had just upset Florida in their 2013 finale, and were leaving FCS to enter play in the Sun Belt Conference. But, Monken , who was a former assistant at Navy has a passion for the academies which means a lot and also ran the flexbone while at Georgia Southern. So, Army got it right on two fronts: they got a man who believes in academy life and also one who can keep the offense intact. It won’t be an easy task for Monken. In addition to being undersized, the Knights play a tough schedule. In theory, the Knights are an FBS team, but you could argue that they would be a middle of the pack FCS team if they played at that level. A few years ago, they were steamrolled by Stony Brook at home, a team that is no stranger to Buffalo fans. The Knights do play two FCS schools this season. On September 27, they travel to Yale to take on the Bulldogs. Normally, an FBS school would never play an Ivy league school; it’s something that Ivy League schools just don’t do, but this is a special occasion as it is the 100th anniversary of the old Yale Bowl. Army also hosts Fordham on November 22, a team that went 11-2 last year and advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs. Also on the schedule are road trips to Stanford, Wake Forest, Kent State and Western Kentucky and home games against Buffalo, Ball State, Rice and Air Force. This year, the Navy game is at Baltimore with a November 8 contest versus Connecticut at Yankee Stadium.

The only game Army should win is the Yale game, the other 11 are going to be tough and it would not be a surprise if they were underdogs in each of them. The option offense gives them a chance. It is deceptive enough to give their opponents trouble. They gave Stanford fits last year, losing 34-20 in a game where the Cardinal didn’t pull away until late in the fourth quarter. Monken’s task is to win some of the close games and most importantly, beat Navy, something that hasn’t been done in 12 years. The Bulls will have the hands full when they play there September 6. They have to play disciplined on defense. If they do, they should prevail, but Army, with that, tricky, tough-to-practice-against option offense is hoping to run all over the blue and white.