Photo Credit: Georgia Southern Athletics

When the Florida Atlantic Owls open up their season on the road at Georgia Southern, FAU and new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt won’t have an easy task.

Georgia Southern does not run an easy offense to stop. It’s frustrating to play against and will wear out defenses throughout the game.

However, it is not an unstoppable offense. With proper responsibility, FAU can come out of its season opener with a win and a thwarted offense.

The Scheme

Georgia Southern runs a triple-option scheme but it has some differences to other triple-options, like those run by the service academies like Army.

FAU head coach Willie Taggart summed the offense best when meeting with media ahead of the contest.

“It’s option football from the gun. When you hear people say option football, you think of Army and Navy up under the center,” Taggart told the media. “But these guys are doing those things from the shotgun, which makes it more difficult then say the Army, Navy guys. … You got to be disciplined and, probably more importantly, you gotta get 11 guys to the football.”

Although the concept remains the same to other triple option offenses, Georgia Southern and offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse operates out of the shotgun formation and not from under center.

This is a fundamental part to DeBesse’s offense. DeBesse utilized something similar at New Mexico, where he built one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.

The Reads

Any read for the quarterback is simple. Reads take place post snap, presenting an additional problem for opposing defenses. Tasked with these simple reads, the quarterback often has three choices – hand the ball of to the fullback, pitch it to the running back or take the ball himself.

The quarterback will often make two reads, beginning with the A gap (between the center and guard) or the B gap (between the guard and tackle), before moving to the outside read. If the A or B gap is open, the quarterback will hand the football off to the dive run. If it isn’t, the play shifts to a typical speed option, requiring just one quarterback and one running back.

The triple-option can be best be explained as two different options combined into one. A zone-read is the first option and is done by reading the A gap or the B gap. The second option is a speed option, where the quarterback will read the play side defensive back and choose between pitching it or taking it himself.

More often than not, passing is limited for the offense. Georgia Southern threw just 154 passes in 2019 and threw for just nine passing touchdowns. The Eagles, like most triple-option teams, are content with controlling time of possession and not throwing the football. The Owls ranked 14th in average time of possession in 2019, holding the football for 32 minutes and 45 seconds per game.

Personnel

In terms of personnel, Georgia Southern operates a lot of 21 (two running backs, one tight end) and 30 (three running backs) personnel. The tight end, however, doesn’t usually lineup in-line and is often flexed. DeBesse, the offensive coordinator, refers to this flex player as a “cruiser” and is responsible with operating as the lead blocker.

21/30 personnel for Georgia Southern. The cruiser (often a tight end or third running back) is the lead blocker. On this triple-option, the quarterback will decide whether to hand the ball of to the first read (listed as 1), pitch the ball to the second running back or take the ball himself. (Source: ESPN)

Georgia Southern does not always operate with two running backs in the backfield, though. DeBasse will often motion a wide receiver into the backfield, creating the triple-option from 11 or 20 personnel (depending on what the “cruiser” is listed as).

Motion wide receiver creates triple-option look for Georgia Southern. (Source: ESPN)

On the above play, the quarterback recognizes that the primary gap read is closed, taking away the zone read. When he breaks out into the speed option, two Appalachian State defenders close out on the pitch, leaving a gaping hole for Georgia Southern to attack.

The Quarterback

The quarterback’s reads may be simple but they are often the most important piece to the offense for triple-option teams.

Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts returns for his third year as the team’s starting quarterback. In 2019, Werts ran for 733 yards and five touchdowns on 171 carries. In the first game of 2020, Werts recorded 155 yards — his 10th-career 100-yard rushing performance.

As previously mentioned, Werts has two reads when Georgia Southern runs the triple-option. The A gap run is the bread and butter for these offenses. In a coach’s perfect world, the A gap run is open every play and it simplifies the offense.

Regardless, Werts won’t make many mistakes for Georgia Southern. He’s experienced with the triple-option, so the likely mistakes of not understanding the intricacies with the offense will probably not exist.

Werts, however, is not an effective passer. Last season, Werts mostly settled for short passes within 10 yards and even then, wasn’t very effective when it came to them. According to Pro Football Focus, Werts completed 28 of his 41 throws between zero and 10 yards. Werts recorded 217 yards on those throws.

Werts’ passing touchdowns came strictly on deeper throws. On passes over 20 yards to the outside left, Werts posted a PFF grade of 90.4, completing four of his eight passes for 107 yards and three touchdowns.

How to stop the Georgia Southern offense

The first step to stopping the Georgia Southern offense is to admit that the offense will gain yards. The offense is designed to earn yards on the ground, so don’t be shocked if Georgia Southern breaks multiple runs for 10-plus yards against FAU. In Georgia Southern’s opening win against Campbell, the Eagles tallied five explosive runs (runs over 10 yards), according to PFF.

The big key for FAU is to avoid blitzing. Although blitzing seems like an obvious way to thwart any rushing offense, a blitz feeds right into Georgia Southern’s strengths. Blitzing will leave FAU’s player’s out of position, allowing Werts and the offense to recognize the holes and attack them.

FAU will need to rely on its defense line to stay disciplined and play their run fits. By plugging the gaps and staying disciplined, FAU will force Georgia Southern into rough decision-making and potentially lesser gains. There often isn’t a sense of ‘hero ball’ in an option defense. Instead, every player has to play their assignments.

On third downs, FAU has to avoid the 3rd-and-5 and below. Georgia Southern has a good enough triple-option offense that this length should give it easy first downs.

When the defense can force pressure on Werts, which should happen if FAU pushes it to 3rd-and-long, Werts should struggle. According to PFF, Werts completed 28.6% of his throws while under pressure. Werts was sacked on 27 of his 74 under pressure drop backs.