FARGO, N.D. — Dale Lennon built his career around stopping the option and he says North Dakota State will have a tough task this weekend in its playoff game againstGeorgia Southern.
The Bison host Georgia Southern in a Football Championship Subdivision semifinal on Saturday, and Lennon said things will get tricky when the Eagles start running and pitching inside the Fargodome.
“It’s scary,” said Lennon, now the head coach at Southern Illinois. “It’s an offense that has disappeared, and I think now as it is coming back, a lot of teams aren’t sure how to defend triple option anymore.”
The Bison employed the veer option to win five Division II national championships after a playoff system was instituted in 1973. At one point, NDSU owned a 12-game winning streak against North Dakota.
Lennon, first as UND’s defensive coordinator and then as head coach, set his sights on cracking the option and won nine of his last 11 games against NDSU. Lennon’s defense ran drills against the option almost every day throughout the season.
The Bison (12-1) have had one week to prepare for Georgia Southern.
“Long hours and coffee,” is how NDSU head coach Craig Bohl described the prep work. “We’re scheming like crazy right now.”
The Eagles (11-2) rank second in FCS in rushing with an average of 334 yards a game. They like to spread the ball around. Six players have 42 carries or more. Five of them have rushed for more than 470 yards each.
Lennon said he watched Georgia Southern dismantle Old Dominion in the first round of the playoffs.
“Just watching that one game, it did remind me of the NDSU days of running the veer and running the ball on third and six, third and seven, third and 10 … they’re pretty good at that,” Lennon said.
Most impressive, Georgia Southern ran for 302 yards in a 45-21 loss on Nov. 19 to Alabama, the most allowed by the Crimson Tide since 2004.
“I saw the University of Alabama, who’s coached by (Nick) Saban, supposedly the next guru of defensive football, give up 300 and some yards against these guys,” Bohl said. “And Saban looked haggard in the press conference.”
The Eagles typically line up with two wide receivers, two slot backs and a fullback behind the quarterback. The first option is the fullback, the second is the quarterback keeping the ball and the third is pitching to a trailing back.
To stop it, Lennon said, each defender has to follow his assignment rather than trying to make every tackle. He would tell his linemen to take on the first body in the way and not even look to see what’s going on in the backfield. That leaves the linebackers and defensive backs to match up with the skill players.
One mistake results in a big play, Lennon said.
On the other hand, he said, Georgia Southern might make risky pitches and isn’t comfortable playing from behind.
“I like North Dakota State,” he said. “I think they’ve got talent on defense. I think their speed is right where you need it, and their versatility with their front seven is pretty impressive. And I think they have the coaches who know how to defend it.”