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Talking Option With Nebraska's Tom Osborne

I spoke with Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska coach, for a story in Wednesday's editions of The Post about Georgia Tech's option offense. I wanted to speak with someone with an intimate knowledge of the offense, and who better than Osborne? His credentials speak for themselves. Using an option offense, Osborne's Cornhuskers won national championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Below is a transcript of our conversation. And at the end is a highlight video of Nebraska's 1995 squad, considered by some to be the greatest college football team ever. The evidence for why Osborne is a credible source on this offense can be found in that video.

How much have you watched of Georgia Tech’s offense, and how similar is what Coach Paul Johnson is doing now, compared to what you ran at Nebraska?
I’ve watched them on a couple of occasions, and I think I saw Paul’s team last year against Georgia. There’s some similarity in that they run a very, very high percentage of options. We would run maybe 25 to 30 percent was option football. We were more of a traditional I-formation team. We ran a lot of option out of the I. There was a game or two we used the double-wing with options, very similar to what they’re doing. Matter of fact, the last game I coached, in 1997 against Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, we ran a version of that offense maybe 25 to 30 percent of the game, and it was pretty effective. Everything’s a little different, but a lot of what they’re doing is similar.

What are its strengths and weaknesses?
The strengths of the option game is that it employs all of your players. All of your backs have a chance to run with the ball. The traditional triple options, when the ball is snapped, you really don’t know who’s going to carry it; it depends on the defensive reaction. So the first option is the fullback. If the defense closes on the fullback, then the quarterback pulls the ball; if the defense doesn’t close, you hand it to the fullback. The second option, of course, is the quarterback running with the ball if the defensive end or contain man takes the pitch.

It depends on the defensive reaction. In the process of stopping that type of option attack, you almost have to involve you secondary. You just don’t have enough people to stop that with your linemen and linebacker, and as a result, it often times force the secondary to play a man-to-man coverage and play quickly, and they become vulnerable to the play-action pass. I remember one time talking to Bear Bryant, he was running the wishbone; the reason he did it is because he said it gave him the options in passing situations.

It really removes any help from the safeties on many occasions. Obviously it makes your quarterback a runner. All the sudden the traditional defensive schemes tend to break down.

The other strength of the option game is it’s so different than what most teams are seeing. If you only see it once, you have four days to see it: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Friday you’re not going to do anything intense. It’s really hard to get ready for in one week because of the responsibilities.

To instill that discipline and that knowledge of who’s got what and what responsibility in four days is difficult. Right now I think Paul has a lot of things going for him. Of course, he ran that offense at Navy, but he probably didn’t have the same players. Right now, he’s got a quarterback that’s got some size and some running ability, and he’s got a little more speed. And he’s probably got a little more size in the offensive line. He did a great job at Navy, and Navy continues to do well, as does Air Force.

Is there a misconception that it is a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense?
If things work right in the option, you’ve got a guy with speed on the corner and a couple blocking in front of him. We always felt our options plays should average more than seven yards a carry, and they usually did. That’s a pretty high average.

You had a better chance for a 60- to 80-yard run than almost any play in your playbook. Some times people criticized us because we didn’t pass a lot, but what I often told people, where the traditional team would throw the ball, we’ll run an option. So if we threw 15 and ran 12 options, that would be the equivalent of some teams passing 27 times. It’s a high-risk play but sometimes it would get you those big gains.

One of the criticisms, if you fall behind by two or three touchdowns, and you have to score in a hurry, was can you do it because you may be more limited throwing the ball when you’re in a situation where people know you have to throw it. That is often times a criticism, but as I said, they can move the ball pretty fast on the ground in a hurry, so I’m not sure that criticism is as valid as some people say. You often here people say this offense isn’t suited for a two-minutes offense.

Why do you think people are so curious about Johnson’s offense?
I think that people are interested in it because they haven’t seen much of it in recent years. Everyone has tended to go to the spread offense, the West Coast offense, and we’re employing four sometime five wide receivers, one running back. The quarterback runs a little bit but not much, and there’s a whole lot of throwing and all the sudden you’ve got this other thing where you’ve got basically three running backs and a quarterback who run the ball. They throw it some but not 30 times a game. It just looks so different. But right now that’s Georgia Tech’s advantage, because they’re the only team that’s doing anything like it.

I remember when Oklahoma was running the wishbone in the Big 8. It was real difficult because it was different from anything we’ve seen. Then other teams started running the wishbone and we started seeing it three or four times a year. . . . Right now, I think it’s certainly an advantage for Paul that people don’t see it much.

Do you think Johnson's offense has staying power in the current college football landscape?
I think so. Everything depends on the quality of athlete you have and your execution. If you have good athletes and you execute well, I think it’s every bit as viable as it was 10 years or 20 years ago. But if you don’t execute and you leave the ball on the ground three or four times -- which you can -- then you’re pretty marginal. I think the reason that Navy and Air Force have done this for so long is that a lot of their size requirements in recruiting to Air Force Academy make it very difficult to get the 300 pound linemen. Their recruiting standards -- at Air Force, you’ve got to fit into a jet an there are some exceptions, but you just don’t see the big people you need to have at most major college programs. As a result of reading the fullback, you don’t have to sustain your blocks a long time. You don’t have to have people to pass protect for a while. I think because of that, the service academies have adopted that style of football.

There are always nuances. As people catch up with one thing, you begin to tinker. It’s a pretty sophisticated offense.

By Mark Viera  |  October 14, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
 
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