Minnesota football coach Glen Mason remembers it “like it was yesterday.”
Safety Eli Ward – “vividly.”
The Gophers were returning from their best season in more than three decades, which included a dramatic victory over then-second-ranked Penn State, and culminated in a New Year’s Eve Sun Bowl date with Oregon.
Then a team the Gophers handled 33-7 the year before came to the Metrodome and threw a wrench in Minnesota’s plans to prove 1999 wasn’t a fluke.
“We were very excited and optimistic about the season,” Ward said. “I think we kind of looked ahead a little bit. We weren’t focused that game and lost.”
The Gophers (2-0) travel to Peden Stadium in Athens, Ohio, on Saturday for their first taste of The Ohio University’s (1-1) triple-option offense since the 23-17 loss on Sept. 9, 2000. The game is scheduled for 2 p.m.
Understandably, Mason has been feverishly preparing for the distinctive offensive strategy employed by a handful of teams in the college football ranks.
“It causes you a lot of problems,” Mason said. “It’s not one-dimensional. On every down, you have the threat of the option, and they know what they’re doing.
“We don’t have anything that we do offensively that resembles that. So when you try to give your defense a look, it’s hard to do. It happens at a much quicker and better pace than it does in practice.”
As the name would suggest, the triple-option can go one of three directions.
Taking the snap from center, a quarterback can either hand off quickly to the fullback or fake the handoff and run parallel to his
offensive line with a running back several yards behind him. Once the quarterback reaches the end of the line, he can either turn upfield himself or pitch the ball to the running back, who sweeps wide.
Bobcats coach Brian Knorr has been a triple-option believer since his days as the Falcons quarterback in the mid-1980s. His playbook remains similar to those days, holding assistant positions at Air Force and Ohio before becoming first-in-command at Athens on Dec. 22, 2000.
The coaching change came two and a half months after Knorr helped beat the Gophers in the role of defensive coordinator under former Air Force colleague Jim Grobe.
“Most of our staff has been associated with option football for a long time,” Knorr said. “That is what they know. You want to coach what you know best. It’s a style of play that I feel very comfortable with and have seen be successful.”
Nebraska and Air Force are the main examples of teams bringing similar offensive styles to the highest tier of college football.
Both teams had rough 2002 campaigns, though. Nebraska had its first nonwinning season since 1961, and Air Force struggled to a San Francisco Bowl berth after losses to Wyoming, Colorado State and San Diego State.
Knorr acknowledges that many option offenses have given way to more spread out, pass-friendly attacks. Nonetheless, he remains steadfast in and envisions a return to prominence for his system of choice.
“I think football is cyclical,” Knorr said. “I think more option football will come into phase in a few years. It’s a philosophy of ours, and we’re sticking with it.”
With more teams preferring to throw the ball forward rather than pitch it backward or run in general, Knorr knows the distinctiveness of his offense is a strength in itself.
When Mason stresses the difficulty in preparing for the Bobcats, it reinforces Knorr’s pride in his strategies.
Still, the complicated zone and gap blocking schemes the Bobcats must execute against the bigger Minnesota defenders figure to work against Ohio. Knorr knows this.
Ohio was overmatched Saturday, losing 48-20 to Iowa State. Still, the team showed the potential its atypical offensive and defensive schemes – they play a less-popular, 3-4 defensive set – have for big plays. The Bobcats had two pass plays over 70 yards, a 68-yard run by quarterback Fred Ray and an 80-yard interception return.
Ward is the only member of the Gophers defense who played in the 2000 matchup and he has taken it upon himself to keep his teammates focused on Ohio because he’s seen the successful side of their strategies.
“They force their opponents to think,” Ward said. “A lot of times when you have to think every play, you make mental mistakes. That’s how they get a lot of their big plays. We’ve been watching a lot of film, and I think we’re mentally prepared to play OU this week.”