October 14, 2010

Giving themselves options

More news about: Ripon | Salisbury | SUNY-Maritime | UW-Whitewater
Randal Smedley
Randal Smedley has averaged 8.9 yards every time he's touched the ball this season for Salisbury, and they've all been on the ground.
Salisbury athletics photo

In an era of football when coaches scramble to keep up with each other, hoping to duplicate the fast-earned achievements of some of the game’s biggest successes, it pays to zig when everyone else zags.

Need proof?

Halfway through 2010 – a season defined by spread offenses and Wildcat packages – the nation’s top five rushing offenses are all running the triple option. What’s more, those five teams – Maine Maritime, Springfield, Salisbury, Ripon and SUNY-Maritime – are all in the hunt for conference championships and playoff bids, since none has more than one loss.

How is it that five teams have such bright futures by staying, well, in the past?

“We hear it all the time,” says Ripon’s Ron Ernst, “even from people in our community. ‘Why not throw the ball more?’ The Packers do it.’ ‘It’s more exciting.’ All I say to it is ‘Why?’ My job is not to be entertainment, although I think it’s pretty entertaining to watch a team mow down the field. My job is to win, and frankly, I don’t care how we do it.”

“First and foremost, you have to be committed to it,” says Salisbury’s Sherman Wood, who admits there have been times in his 11 seasons when he’s thought about doing things differently. But being among the last few teams to prop up a program with the triple option gives the Sea Gulls and the other four masters of the ground attack advantages in both recruiting and in-season preparation.

“If I’m preparing for one opponent who runs the spread, I’m preparing for everyone who runs the spread,” says Ernst, who is also the defensive coordinator. “If you’re preparing for the triple option, you have three or four days to teach your defense the fundamentals on how to stop it.”

UW-River Falls abandoned its traditional Wishbone attack a couple years ago for the spread, and longtime Wing-T teams Gettysburg and Augustana made similar moves, at least partially to be able to run in college what recruits had grown familiar with in high school. But the triple-option offense isn’t as hard a sell as it might seem, especially for its key component, offensive linemen.

“We take great pride in the fact that we’re going to run the football,” Ernst says. “I’m kind of an old-fashioned guy. I think football is about toughness, and we try to establish that. When we get to talking with an offensive line recruit, we tell him, ‘this is a chance for you to be in the spotlight.’ ”

“There’s only so many of those bulldozer, road-grader types to go around,” says Clayton Kendrick-Holmes, who committed to the triple option when he became SUNY-Maritime’s coach for its first season, in 2006 (The Privateers were a club team in 2005). “Those kids are going to get picked up by the big schools. They’re easy to see, and they’re tough to get on the D-III level.”

Going to a triple-option offense allowed the Privateers to focus on an entirely different group of linemen than the schools they recruit against. They aren’t looking for tackles that are huge so much as ones who are athletic, so they can chase down linebackers and run in space. The guards have to be bigger, to move 2-technique (man up on the guard) and 3-technique (outside shade of the guard) defensive linemen, but still athletic enough to pull. The centers have to be most athletic, so they can get up on the linebackers in even fronts.

“When we go out recruiting, coaches will say ‘if he were a little bit taller, he’d be going somewhere,’ and we say ‘That’s our guy,’ ” Kendrick-Holmes says. His linemen can be as light as 220 pounds, as long they have “some lead in their pencil.”

Running things

A look at the nation’s top five rushing offenses, with their record, and yards per carry:

1. Maine Maritime (4-1), 8.86
2. Springfield (4-1), 6.68
3. Salisbury (4-1), 8.00
4. Ripon (5-1), 5.91
5. SUNY-Maritime, 5.83


Jamie Spanapoulous is the top rusher for SUNY-Maritime, but just one of four averaging 50 yards or more on the ground per game.

“There are tons of guys you can find in that mold,” he says.

Wood, pointing out that his team has to face perennial top-5 team Wesley every year, says that strategy doesn’t necessarily work for the Sea Gulls. “We want the best available athlete. Size doesn’t matter, but it helps.”

Wood evaluates potential triple-option linemen by their ability to get to the second and third level.

“We can all down block,” Wood said. “I want to see if they can get to the linebackers and safeties.”

Wood, whose team is averaging eight yards per carry through its 4-1 start, says offensive line is the top priority in recruiting each year. Salisbury aims to be “four deep across the board,” he says, and tells its linemen they’re “going to be depended on one way or another.”

Ernst, whose Red Hawks are rushing for 5.91 yards per carry, and Kendrick-Holmes, whose Privateers are at 5.83, say there’s also a certain mentality they seek.

“Do we want kids that have had a lot of success in run-oriented high school teams?” Ernst asks. “Not necessarily. We want kids who love to play offensive line. We recruit offensive linemen as the trigger to make the offense go. Very few offensive linemen have been told that.”

Kendrick-Holmes points out that the maritime academies attract blue-collar, worker types to begin with.

“That kind of fits with the offensive lineman stereotype,” he says. “They love it … We want a kid who wants to get off the ball and hit somebody on every play.”

Kendrick-Holmes can be taken quite literally. His team has thrown 63 passes in six games. Ripon has thrown 75 and Salisbury just 37. Springfield, which is rushing for 6.68 yards per carry and is fifth in the nation in total offense (507.60 yards per game), has completed 15 of its 38 pass attempts. Maine Maritime, No. 2 nationally in both scoring offense (47.35 points per game) and total offense (534.60 yards per game), has completed just eight of 20 passes.

So much for needing balance and avoiding a one-dimensional attack. The Mariners, rushing for a national-best 8.86 yards per carry, can get away with it. Ripon rushed 81 times for 572 yards and earned 36 first downs in a 56-14 Week 5 win against Knox. The Red Hawks didn’t complete any of their eight passes but threw two interceptions.

“A lot of teams would be happy with 572 yards of offense,” says Ernst. “It doesn’t matter how you get there. It matters that you get ‘er done.”

Of course, triple-option teams still want to pass at least sometimes.

“A lot of teams say they run just to keep the pass defenses honest,” Ernst says. “We’re kind of just the opposite. We pass just to enough to keep ’em honest.”

Ripon
Ripon's Jake Marshall gets the last-second pitch away to running back Brad Johnson.
Ripon athletics photo

Ernst says that teams are so concerned with stacking the box and using rotating secondary coverages to help with run support that efficient passing results. Though his team’s thrown six interceptions this season, Springfield has two, SUNY-Maritime and Salisbury have one each and Maine Maritime has none.

There’s a coaches’ adage about the four things that can happen on a pass play, with three of them (incompletion, sack or interception) being bad. Triple option teams limit their risk, and still get the long-pass rewards from time to time.

“It helps us with recruiting wide receivers,” Wood says. “We tell them they’ll have the highest yards-per-catch in the country. I thought wide receivers wanted to score touchdowns and make big plays, not catch hitches.”

With limited practice time, most of it is spent on the nuances of triple-option run blocking, but Kendrick-Holmes says his team mixes in three-step drops and play-action passes. Sometimes, though, the passing that goes on in practice is just to make sure their defense remembers how to defend them.

To be fair, the winning records (Salisbury, Springfield and Maine Maritime are 4-1, Ripon is 5-1 and SUNY-Maritime is 6-0) are a result of well-rounded programs, albeit ones built around ball control. And the nation’s sixth through 10th-best rushing teams – Washington and Lee (3-2), Norwich (5-1), UW-Whitewater (5-0), Mary Hardin-Baylor (5-0) and Trine (5-0) are all winners as well. So the triple-option alone might not be responsible for the success.

“It has provided consistency in our program,” says Wood, who feels this group of Sea Gulls has the best team chemistry since his 10-1 2004 team. “We’ve tried to prove to the nation that you can do positive things with this offense. But to me, it doesn’t really matter what offense you run [unless you do it well].”

Still, there are advantages to running the triple-option in this day and age.

Ernst and Wood, both defensive-minded head coaches, know them well.

“When I’m preparing for one opponent, I’m preparing for all of them,” Ernst says. “In a sense, that gives us an advantage.”

“Being a defensive coordinator in the past,” Wood says, “If there was one offense I didn’t want to see, it was the option offense.”

Fill 'er up

Last week, ATN compiled its list of the largest crowds in Division III history, and two days later fans at UW-Whitewater made it obsolete, as 12,189 showed up to set a Perkins Stadium and WIAC record.

But getting on the exclusive list of 12,000-and-up crowds in D-III doesn’t paint the entire picture. Last Saturday’s next biggest crowd was nearly half the size, the 6,178 who watched TCNJ play at Montclair State. At McDaniel, 6,141 watched the game against Susquehanna (surprisingly not homecoming day) and Baldwin-Wallace, Christopher Newport and Trine drew crowds above 5,000. Only eight other schools were over 4,000, meaning the national champions’ crowd was triple the size of most.

Here’s the updated top single-game crowds top 10:

16,421: St. Thomas at St. John’s, 10/2/10.
14,437: Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney, 11/12/94. (100th meeting)
13,671: Amherst at Williams, 11/11/89. (New England small-college record)
13,107: Bethel at St. John’s, 11/8/03. (Gagliardi’s 409th win)
12,903: St. Thomas at St. John’s, 10/17/09.

12,620: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/10/01.
12,511: Cortland State at Ithaca, 11/4/95.
12,449: Williams at Amherst, 11/9/96.
12,339: St. Olaf at St. John’s, 10/6/07.
12,189: UW-Stout at UW-Whitewater, 10/9/10.

Continue the discussion here, on Post Patterns.

Over/under

In the place of Poll Positions, where ATN analyzes the how and why of top 25 rankings, let’s try something new: Teams that are ranked a little higher than they probably should be and those that are flying below the radar.

Overranked

No. 11 Thomas More: Saints definitely deserve to be ranked, especially considering they haven’t lost a PAC game since 2007 and blow out teams they should. But just outside the top 10 is kind of high for a team whose cumulative opposition is just 19-21 (.475). That’s better than No. 15 Trine, whose opponents are 16-34 (.320), but quite a bit worse than No. 18 St. John Fisher’s 26-18 (.590) or No. 22 Hampden-Sydney’s 27-16 (.627)

No. 14 Linfield: You don’t get to be seven spots ahead of a team you lost to (No. 21 Cal Lutheran) until after you beat the team it lost to (Pacfic Lutheran).

Underranked

No. 26 Wartburg (receiving 40 votes): I don’t see what about the Knights, who have only allowed 27 points in a half a season, is so much less impressive than No. 6 Coe or No. 9 Central. The Kohawks and the Dutch have had the benefit of playing each other though, and I don’t think voters see room for three ranked IIAC teams at this point.

No. 24 Bethel. Last week, a two-loss St. John’s was ranked 23rd. This week an unbeaten Royals team, whose five wins include one against St. John’s, comes in 24th.

Discuss the top 25 on Post Patterns.

Who are those guys?

The only teams who find themselves looking for games this late in the season, at least from other divisions, are independents. All five inter-classification games this week involve such, plus teams from isolated D-III outposts where it’s hard to schedule opponents. Wesley, on the other hand, has seven openings to fill after its conference dates are set, and might become an independent as soon as next season.

Here’s Week 7’s schedule:

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 6, 1-1 in 2010)

None

vs. Division II (0-0 in Week 6, 1-4 in 2010)

North Greenville (independent) at LaGrange

vs. NAIA (0-2 in Week 4, 1-1 in Week 6, 21-13 in 2010)

Southern Virginia (independent) at No. 3 Wesley
No. 5 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Southern Oregon (independent)
No. 25 Pacific Lutheran at Menlo (independent)
UW-Oshkosh at Lambuth (independent)

Five Ways to Saturday

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In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

On Saturdays, the The Daily Dose features a running game day thread, for real-time reactions from across the country. When ATN travels, find bonus observations there or on Twitter.

The press box
Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, road trip suggestions (Non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time work especially well) and whatever else crosses your mind. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com or use our feedback form.

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

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