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Jeff's Take: Why military schools like The Citadel stick to a 'boring' offense

CItadel_Best17.jpg (copy)

Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey hands the ball off during a triple option play against Towson earlier this year. Brett Lemmo/Special to The Post and Courier

You've heard of throwback uniforms?

Lately, The Citadel football team has been using throwback formations.

That's right, that was the old-school "wishbone" Bulldogs coach Brent Thompson threw out there in victories over Furman and Mercer over the last two weeks.

Citadel legends such as Charlie Taaffe, Jack Douglas and Everette Sands would no doubt approve. That's the offense QB Douglas and fullback Sands ran to such great effect under coach Taaffe during The Citadel's 1990s glory years.

"The wishbone was part of our rain package at Furman," Thompson explained. "When you do get some rain, you don't necessarily want to move around too much. We have that typically in from week to week, mostly for short-yardage situations.

"You want to get your cleats in the ground, keep their cleats in the ground and see if we can get downhill a little bit."

Citadel wishbone

The Citadel's wishbone formation as seen in a 1990 victory over South Carolina. Provided 

The wishbone, with the QB under center, the fullback directly behind him and slotbacks flanked to each side of the fullback, is the predecessor of the "flexbone" attack. The flexbone, in one form or another, is used today by The Citadel and military school brethren Navy, Army and Air Force, and a few others.

History says the wishbone was invented by the late Emory Bellard in the 1960s and run with great success back in the day by legends such as Darrell Royal at Texas, Bear Bryant at Alabama and Barry Switzer at Oklahoma.

The wishbone is long gone from big-time college football, with Tua Tagovailoa throwing bombs at Alabama and Oklahoma using the Air Raid to win Heisman Trophies. And yet, the old-fashioned flexbone remains a good fit for military schools. 

I asked Thompson why on Monday during his weekly press conference.

"If you can be patient in your play-calling, you will have a chance to win the game at the end of the day," said Thompson, whose 5-4 Bulldogs have averaged 359 rushing yards while winning their last three games. "And there's not a lot of patient play-callers out there anymore, with all the spread offenses that are trying to outscore you and put you in a lot of space.

"It's just a different brand of football, more of a singular brand of football."

Former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, a native of Cheraw and graduate of Wofford, is another adherent of the triple option, using it to win 169 games in 23 seasons at Air Force.

"The triple option gives you an advantage in the fact that we could control the clock," Deberry told USA Today in 2017. "Any time we ran twice as many plays as our opponent, we enhanced our chances of winning the game immeasurably."

In Saturday's 35-24 win over Mercer, The Citadel ran 24 plays in the third quarter to just eight for the Bears. The Bulldogs had the ball for 23 minutes and 14 seconds in the second half, to 6:46 for Mercer.

Running the triple option also opens up recruiting for military schools. There's a reason offensive tackles who are 6-6 and 320 with quick feet are hard to find. And there aren't QBs like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, or receivers as fleet as Alabama's, on every block, either.

"We spent several years trying to get tackles that are 6-5 and 290 pounds," former Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said in 2010, when he traded in his spread offense to bring the triple option back to the Bulldogs. "And they just don't move their feet well enough to block the defensive ends you face in this league.

"It's amazing how many 6-1, 260-pound guys are out there that you didn't take because they were not big enough ... And there are a lot of option quarterbacks out there who don't have a home."

The Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey, a 6-0, 205-pound junior, is a case in point. He might not be able to play quarterback at a lot of schools, but at The Citadel he has accounted for 23 touchdowns this season, the most in school history.

Bottom line — for military schools with built-in recruiting challenges, the triple option helps level the playing field and gives them a chance. Witness The Citadel's 10-10 halftime tie at No. 1 Alabama last season, or a 27-24 overtime win at the ACC's Georgia Tech this season.

Navy is 6-1 and Air Force is 6-2 this season, while The Citadel is 5-4 and heading to East Tennessee State this week while in the race for a SoCon title. Army is slumping at 3-5, but last year the Black Knights were 11-2 under another option guru, former Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken.

"People are throwing the ball because they think it's what the fans want to see. Running the triple option, it's boring," DeBerry once said. "But I never looked at it from that standpoint. I used to ask people: 'Do they give more points in football today when you score from a pass play than when you score from a running play?'

"No. A 60-yard run is just as good as a 60-yard pass."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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