OU football: Air Force's triple option scarce, but the offense remains a threat

BY JAKE TROTTER, Staff Writer, jtrotter@opubco.com Modified: September 16, 2010 at 9:44 am •  Published: September 15, 2010

Twenty-five years ago, the triple option offense ran rampant through the Big Eight Conference.

Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska all won national titles with the attack. In fact, from 1969 to 1990, teams running the triple option claimed 11 national championships. Including the Sooners in 1974, 1975 and 1985.

Today, however, the triple option in an endangered species.

The Air Force Academy, OU's opponent Saturday, is one of only four Bowl Subdivision programs that still run the triple option, along with Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Yet while the triple option has become scarce, the schools running the offense are doing so to great success.

Despite a surprising loss at Kansas last weekend, Georgia Tech has been prolific offensively since Paul Johnson brought the triple option from Navy to Atlanta three seasons ago. Last year, the Yellow Jackets advanced to the Orange Bowl after ranking second nationally in rushing while averaging almost 34 points a game.

With coach Ken Niumatalolo, Navy hasn't missed a beat, either, winning 10 games last season after destroying Missouri in the Texas Bowl.

And coming off an eight-win season, Air Force is off to a great start this year. The Academy, which leads the nation with 423 rushing yards a game, hammered BYU 35-14 last weekend to move to 2-0.

So with the triple option generating success, both past and present, why did it go out of style?

Sooner coach Bob Stoops has one theory.

"Most kids want to play in an NFL-style system," Stoops said. "Most kids want to be developed that way because they see themselves maybe having a future beyond college ball. It's kind of hard to recruit wide receivers when you are (running the triple option). It's also hard to recruit quarterbacks when you are doing that. That is probably a decent reason why.

"But the triple option has always been effective."

In the triple option, the quarterback has three options. To give the ball to the fullback on the dive. To keep the ball himself around the end. Or to pitch the ball to a back. All the while reading his "keys," which determine which option he chooses.

"One assignment that's not properly executed by one guy on the defense out of the 11, that can kill you," said OU safety Jonathan Nelson. "If you slip up one time, (the offense) will run for 30 yards."

In earnest, the triple option got its start in the 1960s, when Texas assistant Emory Bellard invented the wishbone.

But Barry Switzer elevated the offense with quarterback Jack Mildren in the early 1970s. From there, the triple option spread like a wildfire.

"It's a great offense," Switzer said. "Makes a defense play disciplined. Makes a defense think. Neutralizes great talent."

Like in 1980, when OU played North Carolina and Lawrence Taylor.

"Lawrence Taylor never made a tackle, and we rushed for 500 yards," said Switzer, whose Sooners won 41-7. "He never got near the ball. We didn't let him."