East Lansing — Here’s basically what Michigan State’s defense has done this week — forget everything it knows about playing defense.
OK, not exactly everything, but many of the basic principles go out the window as Air Force brings its triple-option attack to Spartan Stadium for today’s noon matchup with No. 4 Michigan State. And when you consider how drastically different it is from what Michigan State saw in its first two opponents – Western Michigan and Oregon – the change will be dramatic.
“Very difficult to prepare for,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “You have to shift gears from going from an offense like Oregon to an offense like Air Force. A lot of different scenarios there involved with option football.”
It’s the sort of football that can drive a defense crazy, and it’s exactly what Air Force is hoping to accomplish. It did that last season when it won 10 games and reached a bowl game, only a year after going 2-10.
Of course, the Falcons don’t really see it as a triple option.
“We really don’t do it that often,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “We’re a lot more of a tailback-dominated running team. The pluses of that I think we’re able to gain some chunks of yards with play-action passes off those tailback runs.”
That explanation, however, is not supported by the film or the statistics. On nearly every play, the quarterback has the option to hand the ball to the fullback, pitch to the tailback or run it himself. And the leading rusher for the Falcons last week? Fullback D.J. Johnson, who carried it a team-high 21 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns. Jacobi Owens had 85 yards on 11 carries.
Johnson is averaging 5.8 yards on his 32 carries this season, and Owens 6.1 on 20 attempts.
As for that play-action game, Air Force sure picks its spots and there aren’t many. It has only thrown the ball 18 times in two games, and it will be coming into today’s matchup with a change at quarterback after Nate Romine was lost to a season-ending injury. He’ll be replaced by senior Karson Roberts, who has an 0-3 record as a starter.
So, yeah, Michigan State is preparing to face the option and even spent time in preseason camp working on it.
“It’s definitely difficult changing gears,” fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris said. “They are good at what they do and are absolutely efficient in the triple option. That’s what they’ve been doing for years. You see it in high school and little league, so some guys have been doing it their whole life and they are pretty good at it.
“We definitely looked at it during camp, did a little practice on it so it wasn’t a culture shock this week. Hopefully the scout team gives us a good look so we have it down pat.”
Much of the stress will be put on those linebackers, as well as the defensive line.
The Spartans are an attacking, aggressive group up front and have recorded 11 sacks in two games. Today, they’ll have to use their hands more and react while avoiding the multiple cut blocks the smaller Air Force offensive line uses to make up for its lack of size.
“It’s a part of the game,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said of the blocking. “You gotta be able to play hot and heavy. You gotta be able to use your hands. That’s a part of the game today. Some people use it more than others. Our job is to defend it and play against it.
“It’s called a triple option. It makes you make great decisions under duress and that’s what the game plan is. That’s what life is. What you do in a critical situation when it’s first down, second down, third down, when you have three options. We have to do our job in an option situation.”
Burton has intimate knowledge of the scheme used at Air Force. Before coming to Michigan State in 2013, he coached the defensive line for the Falcons for 10 seasons.
And Burton understands that scheme is just one of the obstacles in facing a team like Air Force, one that will be looking to pull off the upset. It’s the makeup of the team that is equally as important.
“The execution of the game, the never-say-die attitude,” Burton said. “The ability to go on to the next play, the ability to be able to finish, making adjustments, understanding readily and quickly how to make adjustments on and off the field. That’s what has allowed them to continue to compete at the highest level, and that’s what they want because that’s what their life is on a daily basis starting at 5 a.m.”
For Michigan State, facing a unique offense might be exactly what was needed a week after an emotional win in front of a national television audience. It has forced them to focus and dial back in quickly.
“There’s more studying to do for us because it’s a completely different thing and that helps,” junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “But this team competes each week no matter what happened previously. Coming off big wins, we want to stay motivated and I think we have been. We want to keep the ball rolling.”