DEFENDING THE A&M OPTIONThe last time Cal visited the Holiday Bowl, it faced a team from Texas that ran an unconventional offense the Golden Bears had not seen during the regular season. We know how that turned out. This year, the Bears won't have to worry about too many five wide receiver sets. But to win the Holiday Bowl, its defense must cope with a new look and contain Texas A&M's brutally efficient option run offense.
The Aggies will often start games with a base option attack running out of an I formation, with either Michael Goodson or Javorskie Lane as the I-back. For football historians, the attack out of this formation looks similar to the old Nebraska teams under Tom Osborne.
Depending on the defense's formation and tendencies, they will mix in a number of variations on the zone read option out of shotgun. They will occasionally show a true spread with four or five receivers wide, though this is not a base formation. More often they will feature a single back and an H-back/tight end (Martellus Bennett), or split backs flanking QB Stephen McGee. From any of these formations, the Ags run an option that looks an awful lot like Oregon, though they throw far less than the Ducks.
The following clip from A&M's winning drive against Texas shows how effective the Aggies can be from all of these looks:
So, how do you beat these sets? Let's start with the I-back option. Defending the option successfully is difficult because it requires discipline and restraint. Defenders cannot simply attack the line of scrimmage; they must play assignment football and stay within their roles.
The option assignments include the dive to the fullback, the quarterback keeper off tackle, and finally the wide pitch to the tailback. In Cal's base 4-3 defense, the primary responsibility for the dive would fall to the tackles and Mike linebacker. The quarterback is most often the responsibility of the defensive ends, and the pitch man is taken by the outside backer (Sam or Willie). If the defense keeps to these assignments and tackles soundly, the I-back option cannot generate enough yardage to sustain drives, and A&M will be forced into play-action.
The zone read option is different in that the quarterback and tailback often move in completely different directions at the snap. The pressure here is especially on the linebackers, who must read through ball fakes and respect the short passing game. McGee often takes a short drop as if to throw, and then tucks the ball under his arm and becomes a runner a la Vince Young. The keys to stopping this formation are disciplined linebacker play, good communication and (of course) good tackling.
Keys for each team
Texas A&M - 1. Establish the passing threat. The option is most successfully run when offenses can establish the threat of the pass, and prevent the corners and safeties from cheating up for run support. If A&M can hit some quick passes out of either the I or spread formations, they will soften up Cal's back seven for the run game. If not, Cal will undoubtedly cheat these men up and show what looks like a seven or eight man front.
2. Block the corners. In some ways, the most important blocking assignments out of the option are the receivers on the corners; if corners can shed blocks and converge quickly on the pitch man, they can go a long ways toward neutering the third option. This all assumes, of course, that Cal's front four can take away the first two options and force the Aggies to pitch the ball.
3. Ball security. A&M only averages one turnover per game, though nine have come by way of fumble. Turnovers in the run game could yield quick Cal scores, and A&M is not a terribly proficient quick-strike team.
Cal: 1. DEs must raise their game. We know Cal's ends struggle to generate a consistent pass rush; it's an open question whether they can shed blocks and cover the QB. If they cannot, the outside backer is put in the untenable position of choosing between the QB and the pitch man.
2. Disciplined play. While Cal's linebackers are very athletic and physical, they are not always models of discipline. Mickey Pimentel, in particular, must resist the temptation to go for the big hit and respect the pitch man on the I-back option. In the zone read option, Cal's LBs must read ball fakes and trust their ability to pursue and close on ball carriers.
3. Be efficient on offense. When A&M is rolling, they limit the number of touches for the opposition - in the Ags' 12-7 victory over Texas, they limited Texas to 24 minutes of possession. Cal can't afford wasting series as the Longhorns did last month.