Is college football’s new rule on cut blocks harming the triple option?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

College football has seemingly figured out a way to slow down a good triple-option attack: throw flags.

Opponents of triple-option teams have complained forever about cut blocking.

This offseason, the sport’s decision makers did something about it.

A penalty costs 15 yards, same as before.

At least a couple of flexbone teams have already felt the effects.

More than 1,000 people have signed that petition, titled “Make Football Great Again: Revoke the Expansion of the Blocking Below the Waist Rule.” It reads, in part:

Not only does this rule change make the game less safe, it makes Service Academies and other undersized teams less competitive. Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said that “most teams block below the waist” and that the rule change takes the ability to compete from “a guy that’s not as big in stature.”

All teams and players are not created equal like they are in the NFL. This rule change at the NCAA level follows the NFL’s initiative to create a passing big man’s game. Group of Five teams will continue to become less relevant moving forward.

This rule change was initiated by the inclusion of a bias and loaded question in the 2018 Football Rules Survey Report that was answered by collegiate head coaches, commissioners, coordinators, and officials.

Head coaches were split on the question, but conference commissioners (who presumably like the idea of things that sound safe) and coordinators (half of them defense guys) were in favor:

NCAA

It’s not quite clear how much the expanded rule will hurt flexbone teams over the long haul. Some of the early signs aren’t encouraging.

Army has gone from averaging 4.2 penalties per game (10th in FBS) to 6.3 this year (63rd), and Georgia Tech has gone from 4.0 (fifth) to 5.0 (22nd).

Granted, Navy’s penalty rate has actually gone down — from 4.1 (eighth) to 3.7 (sixth) — but at the moment, so has the Midshipmen’s efficiency. They enjoyed a 46.7 percent success rate last season, 10th in FBS; this year so far, despite just having beaten up on an FCS opponent (Lehigh): 42.7 percent, 73rd.

A successful play is one where the offense gets 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down.

Every team uses at least a few option principles, but six FBS teams have primarily run the triple option in recent years. Four — Army, Navy, Air Force, and Georgia Tech — have been more committed than anyone else to the flexbone. Offensive success rates for those four:

The difference gets starker if you just include the service academies. It gets less stark if you throw in New Mexico and Georgia Southern, which run somewhat different offenses

So far, there appears to be a slight dip under the expanded rules. We’ll see if it becomes a long-term trend. If it does, the different blocking requirements will have played a role.

Flexbone coaches have been understandably critical of the change.

The scheme has historically involved lots of low blocking to free up runners. Some of that happens right at the snap. But some of it has happened downfield. Here’s a basic example from Army’s 2017 visit to Ohio State, when two Army linemen dove (legally) at the legs of Ohio State defenders who were between 5 and 11 yards off the line:

It wasn’t every play, but it was often. And it’s illegal now.

“Either blocking below the waist is dangerous or it’s not,” Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson said. “It’s not any more dangerous five yards down the field than it is on the line of scrimmage. If it’s that scary, they ought to not tackle below the waist.”

“Either cutting below the waist is dangerous or it’s not,” Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo said, almost echoing his former boss. He said the Midshipmen would adjust.

Army’s Jeff Monken framed it as a coordinated attack on the flexbone offense.

“There’s a lot of people out there trying to get rid of blocking below the waist because they want to make it into a big man’s game and frankly, I don’t think they want to face this offense,” Monken said. “I think they would like to see it just eliminate this offense altogether. They might get it done but we are going to continue to do it. If they tell us we can’t block below the waist, I don’t think we can go change our offense.”

It’s easy to spot moments where the rule change has already hurt. This low block by a Georgia Tech H-back (look just in front of midfield) arguably ran afoul of both parts of the rule expansion:

It happened just more than 5 yards downfield, and you could make a case that it came from the side, which is now illegal for non-linemen. (It was already illegal once the ball had left the tackle box, as it just had here.) A nice gain for Johnson’s Yellow Jackets became a 15-yard penalty that it might not have been in other years.

The rule change probably won’t kill the triple option, which has survived sea changes to the sport over many decades.

But it will make innovation necessary, and it might hurt the scheme anyway.

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