Listen to Swany and Nolan’s preview of the Bison-Cal Poly game here.
It might not be correct to call the triple option a “buzzword” around the North Dakota State football team. However, it is a term and scheme they are familiar with. Whether the head coach is Chris Klieman or Craig Bohl, the Bison have always faced challenging option offenses in their Division I tenure. Many will recall their most recent run-in with the option, a 42-10 victory over Wofford in last year’s FCS Quarterfinal. Famed bouts with Georgia Southern have also featured the option offense. Before all of that, there was another. NDSU’s former Great West Conference foe, Cal Poly.
The Mustangs have long been a proponent of the option offense dating back to when the Bison first entered Division I competition. During NDSU’s time in the Great West, the two teams split their series against one another. They have not faced off since 2007’s monumental Bison comeback in San Luis Obispo. Now, after more than a decade since their last meeting, the Mustangs travel to Fargo to open the 2018 season.
After storming into the FCS playoffs in 2016 on the shoulders of star fullback Joe Protheroe, the Mustangs were abysmal in 2017. Protheroe suffered a serious knee injury two games into the season. Quarterback Khaleel Jenkins got hurt seven games into 2017 as well. That, combined with several other injuries led the Mustangs to a 1-10 finish last year. Their lone victory came against Portland State, who was arguably the worst team in FCS last year, going 0-11.
Cal Poly looks to return to some sense of normalcy this year. While that will be a challenge, it is not too far-fetched to believe that their unique scheme can catch teams off guard. Will one of those teams be the Bison though? Probably not. This Cal Poly team is far too young and inexperienced on both sides for me to say that they have a chance in the Fargodome.
Yet, it never hurts to take a look at what the Bison should be expecting on Saturday. Analyzing their offensive and defensive schemes will only enrich your fan experience anyway.
The one area Cal Poly has experience in is the offensive line. They start three seniors and two juniors in front of their option offense. What bothers me is the lack of size the front five possess for the Mustangs. None of Cal Poly’s starting lineman weighs in over 300 pounds, including a 265-pound right guard. While size is not a determining factor in success, against a veteran, physical Bison front seven, it would help. That being said, an option offense can require leaner, quicker linemen in order to break big plays and sustain them downfield.
Let’s have a look at how Cal Poly frequently sets up offensively. We’ll use their lone 2017 victory against Portland State as an example.
This is what Bison fans should be seeing on a frequent basis come Saturday. The Mustangs frequently set up in what is commonly known as a flexbone option offense. This style features the quarterback under center, a fullback behind him, two slot (or wing) backs behind the guards on both sides of the line and two wide receivers. Cal Poly’s fullback, Joe Protheroe, rushed for 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016 and has the third most rushing yards of any current FCS running back. He will likely be used in a heavy capacity behind quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, who is also a good runner.
Cal Poly’s set-up is different from NDSU’s most recent triple option opponent Wofford. The Terriers opt for a more traditional wishbone option, with a fullback and two running backs behind the quarterback. Bison fans who recall the playoff contests against Georgia Southern in 2011 and 2012 should find the Mustang formation familiar. The Eagles are a proponent of the flexbone option.
What may become tricky for the Bison offense is when the Mustangs do not opt for Protheroe. In the above play, the slot back on the right side comes in motion before the snap. The quarterback (in this case, backup Jake Jeffrey) will fake the hand-off to the fullback and set up a classic option run play. This motion concept is a hallmark of any flexbone option and is designed to create big plays.
This play went for a gain of about 45 yards. Thanks to some poor tackling by Portland State, of course, but you can still see the hole created in the final sequence that assured the slot back at least a 10 to 15-yard gain. That is something Chris Klieman and Matt Entz want to avoid at all costs. Cal Poly builds their offensive game around big running plays and that is something NDSU has been historically known for limiting. It is worth noting that NDSU surrendered 271 rush yards to Georgia Southern in 2012, their last time facing the flexbone.
NDSU also has to take into account the number of counters, misdirections and quarterback draws integrated into Cal Poly’s offense. All of which are expected to turn into big plays. Here are a few examples of each:
While the above play resulted in a Cal Poly turnover, it opens up a new formation where the Mustangs begin in the shotgun with one slotback, a receiver acting as a tight end and two more receivers to the left of the quarterback. Cal Poly is a team that would like to avoid passing the ball at all costs. Their primary receiver from last season, J.J. Koski, only had 454 receiving yards. Ryan McNab, the other receiver listed atop the depth chart, only caught two passes last season.
Khaleel Jenkins is a far better runner than Jake Jeffrey, running for 377 yards in his seven games in 2017. Look to see Jenkins keep the ball more often in either the traditional flexbone or the shotgun set seen above. Although Jenkins does have a decent arm, the Mustangs ran the ball, on average, 60 times a game in 2017. Compare that to the 16 times they passed each game.
Of course, coach Tim Walsh will look to get the ball to Joe Protheroe as much as possible. It is not far-fetched to assume Protheroe will touch the ball 35 to 40 times in this contest. Protheroe is a power runner, who loves to go inside the tackles for his yardage. A prime example is this run from 2015.
Especially since Protheroe has not seen any action since last September, he will be hungry to get the ball. The only issue is that one has to assume the Bison front seven have been planning for the Concord, California, native for weeks now. While NDSU will have to choose assignments on defense to make sure no Mustang gets loose on offense, Protheroe will always be on the radar.
One thing NDSU is not accustomed to seeing, especially in Missouri Valley play is a 3-4 defensive set. Cal Poly lost plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. This has left them with a very inexperienced defense, especially on the line. Currently, the Mustangs plan to start two redshirt freshman and a true freshman on their defensive line.
Keep in mind that the Bison have a veteran offensive line and a physically imposing one at that. To say that playing your first collegiate football game in the raucous Fargodome is a challenge might be the understatement of the century too. Couple that with the lack of size Cal Poly has up front, they only feature one starting linemen over 285 pounds. Again, size does not determine success but going against a Bison offensive line that only has 300 pounders, the Mustangs may have trouble penetrating and creating pressure.
Not to mention the lack of experience at linebacker. Cal Poly returns their third-leading tackler from 2017 in Jayson Lee. Beyond that, their starting linebackers combined to make 11 total tackles in 2017. That is worrisome.
NDSU’s gameplan will be to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage. It has always been their approach to offense outside of a few match-ups. So the idea that they will be facing an inexperienced, immature front seven has to leave the Bison salivating.
Another region where the Mustangs struggled, whether healthy or ailing, was tackling. They surrendered copious amounts of yards thanks to their inability to tackle. Take, for example, their non-conference match-up against Northern Iowa last season. The Panthers, a Missouri Valley foe, would be the closest comparable opponent for Cal Poly to study heading into this NDSU game. Keep in mind, this game came at a point in the season where the Mustangs were still relatively healthy.
You can watch those full highlights here.
It did take overtime to decide that game, with Northern Iowa winning 41-38. However, based on the poor tackling ability, especially in the second level, how can you not assume that the Bison will dominate this defense (which again, looks wholly different from the one seen above).
As Swany and I both predicted on our podcast this week, NDSU just has too many advantages on both sides to surrender this game. While Cal Poly offers a different brand of offense, it could fall flat in Fargo.