Three years into his tenure as Colorado’s head football coach, Bill McCartney wasn’t doing very well.
His Buffaloes were a dismal 7-25-1 in those three years, from 1982-84, including a 1-10 mark in 1984. So, in 1985, McCartney ditched the pro-style offense for a wishbone, triple-option attack.
Five years earlier, in 1980, Air Force head coach Ken Hatfield introduced the option to the Falcons and it quickly turned a losing program into a winner. When McCartney made the switch, one of the people he turned to for advice was Fisher DeBerry, who succeeded Hatfield as Air Force head coach in 1984 after serving as the Falcons offensive coordinator during their transition to the option.
The shift to the option led to the greatest run of success in CU football history, including the 1990 national title. Option quarterbacks Darian Hagan and Sal Aunese were program-changing players for the Buffs.
The unique nature of the offense – not many teams were running the triple-option in 1985 – is part of what appealed to McCartney.
In the nearly 35 years since then, offense at CU and around the country has changed dramatically. The option is a distant memory at CU, and it is, once again, a rare attack being used in college football.
On Saturday, the triple option – or at least a form of it – will return to Folsom Field when the Buffaloes (2-0) host Air Force (1-0) in the first meeting between the teams since 1974.
Although the Falcons’ offense has evolved, especially in recent years under head coach Troy Calhoun, it remains rooted in the triple option that changed the program in the 1980s. Since 1982, Air Force has played in 23 bowl games and given fits to just about everyone on their schedule.
“It’s something totally different,” Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo said of preparing for the Falcons, which he’s done each of the last four seasons. “The way they know what they’re doing, they’re running on a different speed than everybody else. They’re going to be a handful.
“I think (the key) is getting the guys’ mindset of this is a different type of game.”
While CU hasn’t faced a dedicated option team since Nebraska in the early 1990s, it’s not a foreign concept to the Buffs and their first-year staff.
Head coach Mel Tucker actually committed to play option quarterback for DeBerry at Air Force before settling on playing defense at Wisconsin. The last three years, when he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia, Tucker faced the triple-option attack at Georgia Tech.
Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh has faced Army, Navy and Georgia Tech. Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers has faced Georgia Tech the past three years, as well, and coached against Air Force, as Bobo’s coordinator at CSU, in 2015.
Even some Buffs players are somewhat familiar with the option. Safety Mikial Onu, a transfer from SMU, played against Navy the past three years. Safety Aaron Maddox played against the Air Force Prep Academy during his junior college days, and linebacker Davion Taylor faced an option team in junior college. Others have likely seen the option in high school.
Experience or not, however, this is not an easy test for the Buffs.
“We know what the challenges are, how we have to practice,” Tucker said. “Just because we have coached it against before, it doesn’t mean that it’s automatic. There’s so much work that has to be done. We’ve put in a lot of work already preparing for this opportunity. There’s nothing fun about it.”
Certainly practicing against live cut blocking hasn’t been fun this week, but it’s been necessary.
“They’re going to cut us in the game, and we cut them in practice,” Tucker said.
This week, players and coaches at CU have talked about the importance of eye discipline and making sure they are assignment sound. More than most opponents, Air Force will test the discipline of a defense.
“You have to keep doing your job over and over,” Bobo said of facing the Falcons. “You have to keep tackling that fullback. He’s going to get three (yards), he’s going to get four; you keep hitting him. You keep hitting the quarterback. You keep running to the pitch. You keep doing it over and over and realize that they’re going to get first downs. They’re going to move the ball.”
Air Force is going to rack up yards on the ground, because that’s what option teams do. However, Air Force’s offense has evolved under Calhoun to where it’s different than what Army, Navy and Georgia Tech (prior to this year, when the Yellow Jackets changed head coaches and offenses) have done.
While those other teams are more traditional in their triple option, Air Force uses it as only part of its offense. Calhoun spent three years (2003-05) with the Denver Broncos under head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. In 2006, when Kubiak became head coach with the Houston Texans, he hired Calhoun as offensive coordinator.
Some of the concepts of the Shanahan offense, including zone blocking in the run game, are evident with the Falcons. Air Force will run out of shotgun formation, spread out its receivers and rely on the pass more than other option teams. Last year, 19 percent of the Falcons’ offensive plays were passes. By comparison, last year Georgia Tech’s offense was 14 percent pass and Army’s 10.6 percent.
“They’re very, very multiple,” Summers said of the Falcons. “It’s a lot more multiple and it can create a lot more challenges as far as what you’re trying to get prepared for and what you feel like you can do.”
If the Buffs find success on Saturday, the unsung heroes will be the scout team, which Tucker called “critical” on a week like this. According to some players, freshman receivers Braedin Huffman-Dixon and Vontae Shenault and walk-on quarterbacks Grant Ciccarone and Matt Ryan have given the Buffs good looks this week.
“We have a team and everyone has a role to play,” Tucker said before drawing comparisons to an extra in a Broadway production. “If (that extra) doesn’t do (his job), you don’t have a show. Everyone has to pitch in and do their job and play their role for the team to the best of their ability.”
On Saturday, it’s finally showtime for the Buffs. They’ve prepared for the option attack throughout the offseason and now get their one shot at trying to stop it.
Ultimately, however, the key to success isn’t much different than every other week, Summers said.
“It’s still playing defense,” Summers said. “Option, spread, pro, (either way) you have to get off blocks and you have to go make tackles. A lot of times I think what happens to you in the weeks of defending option football teams, you get so caught up in the discipline of the assignment and the scheme that comes with it that you forget at the end of the day, you have to whip a block, you have to be able to take good angles to the ball and you have to gang tackle. If you can do that, you have a chance to defend against any type of offense.”
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Air Force Falcons (1-0) at Colorado Buffaloes (2-0)
Kickoff: 11:01 a.m. MT
Where: Folsom Field in Boulder. Capacity: 50,183. Turf: Grass
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: KOA (850 or 760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: Colorado by 3.5
Series: Colorado leads 12-4