Texas-New Mexico: Triple-Option Offense Provides Unique Challenges To Defense

This seems to be about the only UNM football photo in the editor. (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)

One of the things that sets college football apart from the NFL is variety of schemes on the offensive side of the ball, which an be fantastic for those who appreciate the all the different ways to move the ball down the field, but nightmarish for coaches, especially in early-season preparations.

It is New Mexico gameweek, with the Texas Longhorns set to take on the triple option run by Lobo coordinator Bob Debesse, so it's traditional for head coach Mack Brown to build up the opponent. This week he did actually have some cogent points on Monday:

Yes, we have great respect for [offensive coordinator/running backs coach] Bob DeBesse, and what [his former team, Sam Houston State] did playing in the [2011 FCS] National Championship game. What you can do - because of all the veer blocking, angle blocking - you can get better a lot faster than your conventional-type offenses. I think it was really smart of [New Mexico head coach] Bob Davie to hire Bob DeBesse to come in and run the option early.

Respek.

Agreed, actually, snark aside. DeBesse has been an interesting study over the last few days -- the former head coach at his alma mater Texas State, hired by Jim Wacker, his former head coach at then-Southwest Texas, who flamed out and then spent time at Purdue under Jim Chaney and learning the triple option from former New Mexico head coach Dennis Franchione at Texas A&M before bouncing down to the high school level on the defensive side of the ball at A&M Consolidated. Then, resurrection at Sam Houston State in the space of two years.

Feelings of love from Bob Davie, borne to no offensive man so heavily other than the Wannstache.

DeBesse did get some serious help at Sam Houston State having Kansas State transfer Tim Flanders there, an undersized speed back who nevertheless was a Rivals three-star prospect sporting an Oklahoma State offer prior to his commitment to the Wildcats. All Flanders did last year was break the Southland Conference single-season records for rushing yards and rushing touchdowns on the way to earning conference player of the year honors.

In fact, Flanders landing in Huntsville was probably the best career move that DeBesse made in years. And not to take away anything from DeBesse, either -- talented kids definitely do end up at places like that, and when they do, they are a serious boon for their coaches if they can maximize their talent advantages.

But much as it appeared that the addition of new defensive coordinator Chris Tormey at Wyoming corrected some of the more egregious mistakes that plagued the team at the end of last season, it seems that DeBesse could overcome some of the talent deficits imposed upon through the quick installation of an offense that few teams run.

That, in turn, benefits the passing game, according to Brown.

They completed 70-percent of their passes because they're very efficient, because most of it's off the running game. They keep the ball away from you. It's really hard to sack the quarterback. I think they're doing exactly what they need to do offensively. They'll come in, try to keep the ball 40 minutes per game.

Losing to an option offense can be a slow death by a thousand cuts, as evidenced by the Texas A&M victory back in 2006, when of the most excruciating of that time period because the Longhorns just couldn't get the Aggies behind the chains.

Three yards. Three yards. Three yards. 4th and 1 and all of the sudden the decision gets pretty easy because the soft interior starts keeping the linebackers inside the tackles longer and opening up the edges.

There aren't a ton of teams these days that run the triple option as the base offense, with the service academies and Georgia Tech the major exceptions. And defending such options puts a lot of pressure on defense to keep their eyes right, as defensive backs coach Duane Akina likes to say, as there is plenty of misdirection, especially in the passing game:

This week is a different challenge in some ways. It is a big eye-discipline game. There will be challenges anytime you face an option-oriented team. Who's got the dive? Who's got the quarterback? Who's got the pitch?

Not just eye control, but simply understanding assignments. Communicating. The latter of which Texas did poorly against Wyoming, but has vowed to improve upon this week. Of course.

Beyond the inside-out facets of playing the running game, not overselling to the running game is serious concern for teams going against offenses like the New Mexico attack, especially when there is little film from which to work, as is the case here:

Along with all of that, you still have the shot plays because here the throwing game is for points. They are down field throws. With all of the deception, everything looks the same. It is a great eye-control game for us. It is a great chance for us to now play a different style of offense to get us prepared for the Big 12. Next week is a little but of both personalities. Once again, [they have] two quarterbacks, and they both have their certain strengths.

So the Texas defenders have to try to discern tendencies from one game of film, in which Southern couldn't stop the triple option, so UNM only had to attempt 10 passes. And rely on Bearkat film to try to anticipate what those downfield shots will look like.

Against Stony Brook last season in the playoffs, DeBesse went 11 personnel in the Pistol and threw some type of double move, like a sluggo or something, that completely torched the defensive back in press coverage with no safety help for a long touchdown. On a smaller scale, sophomore cornerback Carrington Byndom gave up a pass over the top in a similar situation where he got beat off the line of scrimmage and didn't have any help coming until rather late.

In the run game, as mentioned in the First Look, the back who went over 100 yards last week against Southern, junior Demarcus Rogers, only had a long run last season of 16 yards, despite racking up more than 80 yards. The new offense will put him in space, but New Mexico would probably be ecstatic to have someone like Flanders. Hence why they lost to them last season and then hired their offensive coordinator.

To defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, it all starts inside by defending the dive:

Again, what an option offense does, it really brings out in a way it sort of puts your defense in one line because you've got to handle the A gap. It starts in the A gap. Then they're going to move out to the B, to the C, and then somebody has got the quarterback and somebody has got the pitch, and there will be a blocker out there for that. So really it puts a stress not just to have somebody fill all those jobs starting from our defensive tackles out to our corner, and everybody is going to have to tackle.

Just as spread teams can isolate defensive backs in coverage, especially safeties (hey, Art Briles, picking on Blake Gideon!), option teams can choose the players they would like to take out of the play, something that could have worked well for Texas against Nebraska back in 2009 had Greg Davis put in a midline option play to limit the effectiveness of Ndamukong Suh.

What Diaz is really trying to say, though, is that there's a cascading effect down the the levels of the defense that can result from the inability to play inside out, as mentioned above. The good news? Well, it's a deep rotation of high-quality Texas defensive tackles against some dudes from haven't won more than three games in their career.

So, that's a good thing.

A bigger question is the play at the linebacker level. Unfortunately, serious film study of the Wyoming hasn't been in the cards here, but Demarco Cobbs and Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond will be tested in their gap integrity, overall understanding of assignments, and, of course, their eye discipline. It should be revealing.

One of the questions is whether New Mexico will show more in the passing game after using some 11 personnel Pistol packages that would just take some shots downfield when DeBesse was at Sam Houston State. The guess here is that the offense is built more around the running game right now, especially since frosh running quarterback Cole Gautsche is probably a better runner than senior throwing quarterback B.R. Holbrook is as a passer.

Still, stopping the passing game may be the easy part, unless there are significant breakdowns. Ahem, as there were last week. Reed and Thomas could pose some threats there, but probably not on the level of the Wyoming receiver Herron who broke those long runs, but condensing the field in the option game could open up those old-school veer throws downfield.

Some of this may sound like building up a team that was, well, just really bad last season. And the year before. And the year before that. And not that great the year before that either. But they will have an offense that will present some unique challenges for the Texas defense.

Communication. Ability to understand and execute assignments. Eye discipline. Winning the battles inside against the dive to take away those clock-killing drives that could make it difficult for Texas to get many plays off on the other side of the ball.

Also, New Mexico was a terrible football team last season and lacks proven playmakers at the quarterback and running back positions. But hey, it will be a better test than the Lobo offense last season, and that's a thing.

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