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A former BYU linebacker and triple-option expert explains the challenge Cougars face against Navy

Under Bronco Mendenhall, BYU and Virginia have had success battling option teams at Air Force, Navy and Georgia Tech. Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga explains some keys BYU must do

Defense coach Kelly Poppinga runs drills with Bryan Kariya during BYU football practice Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, in Provo, Utah.
Then-BYU defensive coach Kelly Poppinga runs drills with Bryan Kariya during BYU football practice Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, in Provo, Utah. Poppinga now coaches at Virginia.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

PROVO — It’s a game of cat and mouse.

And if you are not prepared, you’ll be tackling air as a Navy player zips by giggling.

That’s how Virginia co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga describes the challenge of defending the triple-option deployed by Navy, BYU’s opponent in the season opener Sept. 7 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Poppinga should know the triple-option very well since he played against versions of it as a player and coach at BYU and Virginia when facing Air Force, Georgia Tech and Navy. He was there in the Military Bowl in 2017 when 6-7 Virginia lost to 7-6 Navy 49-7.

He knows you cannot be casual against the triple-option, that every play takes everybody’s attention to detail as a defender.

The last time BYU faced a triple-option team was in the Bronco Mendenhall era. Mendenhall was introduced to defending the option as defensive coordinator at New Mexico in 1998 when he witnessed the carnage of a 56-14 Lobos loss to Air Force. After that, he became fascinated by the challenge. He was 7-1 against option attacks as DC and head coach at BYU. Poppinga was by his side as coach and player much of that time.

I reached out to Poppinga and asked him to break down the challenge of defending Navy.

He said the first thing always comes down to fundamentals and knowing keys, and that preparing for it with a scout team can’t always replicate the speed at which it comes at you come game time.

“Every play on every call that you have, you’ve got to make sure that there’s somebody designated for the dive, somebody that’s designated for the quarterback, and somebody that’s designated for the pitch and there can’t be any hesitation. It has to be like second nature. That’s why sometimes it’s so hard to practice against it. Just getting the timing down is hard because it happens so quickly,” Poppinga said.

Another factor is to keep your defense simple.

Instead of preparing multiple or complex defensive sets and coverages, it is better to keep it to three or four and have your players master them. An example is playing primarily man coverage in the secondary while mixing in an occasional cover two.

By switching to cover two, it can take away some of the keys by the option quarterback and make him hesitate or think too long instead of executing like a machine, which Navy and Air Force QBs are known to do.

“For us, it’s always been to keep things simple. So we typically go into that game with no more than three or four calls and it’s really a cat and mouse game the whole time,” said Poppinga.

FILE: In this Oct. 22, 2016, file photo, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, right, reacts as he watches a failed field goal-attempt in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Memphis, in Annapolis, Md.
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Navy, claims Poppinga, has a coaching staff that is so good that they will make adjustments to what they see very quickly on the sidelines. If you make a change, they adjust to it, so you have to keep changing it up. “We always thought we had better coverage speed, so we used man coverage, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t cover two at times.”

Another factor is repetition. A defense has to repeat defending the option in multiple practices and walkthroughs to get players wired to think about assignments.

In this regard, BYU’s time spent in fall camp has to be better served than if the Navy contest was an in-season game sandwiched between another opponent. “It just has to become second nature, watching the dive, the pitch, the keep and keeping disciplined. I’ve found over the years it is just making sure everybody is super disciplined with their assignments. From there, it’s making sure you have a scheme that you believe in and trust and have followed,” Poppinga said.

BYU is transitioning from a three-man front on defense to a four-man look in 2020. Poppinga has never faced an option team with a four-man front. From that perspective, he believes a three-man defensive look is more effective in defending the option.

“Through our studies, and through the information that we get from guys that have triple-option background that have come through our Virginia office we have discovered that (option offenses) do not like a three-man front. They prefer to play against an even front (four down linemen), and over time, we found a scheme that worked. The uneven front seemed to make them uncomfortable.”

Poppinga said he’s not claiming the option can’t attack a three-man front effectively, but it is harder against an uneven front in his opinion because it is harder to control two important defensive techniques.

“With four defensive linemen, Navy will get shade on the three or one techniques. Then they have certain plays that they like to run against a three technique (defender shades a shoulder of the offensive guard) or the one technique (defensive lineman or nose guard shades one side of the center) and so that’s what we’re offering. It’s different, and can be impactful, making them have to get on where you going to put your three technique, and where you’re going to deploy your one (technique).

“Also, we keep it aggressive in our coverage with man press most of the game, with a few exceptions.”

Navy, last year with veteran quarterback Malcolm Perry, became a far more dangerous passing team than Air Force or Georgia Tech, claims Poppinga. “They’ve really worked on making the pass a bigger part of what they do.”

Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry (10) hands off to fullback Jamale Carothers (34) in the first half of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game against Kansas State Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

A final key for a defense against the option is how well the defensive nose tackle controls the first option, the fullback dive. If you can stop that, a play they are trying to establish early, then you are forcing them to go to other options. That’s why it is so important to control the center and that dive play, said Poppinga.

“If you have a nose guard that can handle their center, then that changes a bunch of things for them. So they typically want to establish the game by an inside run either by giving the ball to the player or by doing some type of quarterback design run that looks like an inside zone play.

“If you can have a nose guard that can dominate the center (one technique) that basically takes away where they want to start the game. And then they have to go to the perimeter. The way we do our perimeter uses superior speed for man cover and then we change up.”

Fortunately for the Cougars, they have senior defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga returning for that duty and he’ll be expected to play smart and not over run a play, but just control that A-gap.

Now it’s Kalani Sitake, Ed Lamb and Ilaisa Tuiaki’s turn on the option stage with Navy.

Who’s going to be the cat and who is going to be the mouse?

Stay tuned.