ATLANTA—When Duke felt like it was out of options, it turned to the most tempting of options: the triple-option.
Faced with the impossible task of toppling No. 2 Alabama, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe decided that desperate times called for desperate measures. With a new quarterback who had previously found more success on the ground than through the air and a talented crop of running backs, relying on the triple-option sounded like a good idea.
Popular among undersized teams like Army, the triple-option—a style of offense where the quarterback can either keep it himself, hand it off or pitch it to a running back—was utilized by Duke throughout the first quarter of Saturday’s 42-3 season-opening loss to the Crimson Tide.
While running a triple-option certainly caught everybody—including Alabama, fans and media—off guard, it was an ineffective gimmick, yielding no points for the Blue Devils, before Duke abandoned it for a more traditional offense. The triple-option should have no place in the Blue Devil playbook for the rest of the season, and its early implementation could mean that the Blue Devil offense is low on options.
Duke certainly went for the element of surprise to open the season, but Alabama would not be deceived by trickery, with its supremely athletic linebackers still stifling the Blue Devil offense.
“I don't think they were prepared for it, but I don't think anyone that we would go up against in the first game would have been prepared for that either,” Duke offensive guard Rakavius Chambers said. “There was a little bit of confusion with a team that goes from running normal spread offense to running triple option, and something that we haven't shown ever before…. But they still held up well, and I think their linebackers and their defense eventually caught on and defended it pretty well.”
The triple-option seemingly fit Duke’s personnel, but in reality, limited the offense’s potential.
A byproduct of the running back-heavy option offense, the expected dynamic duo of Blue Devil running backs expanded into a trio, as Mataeo Durant and the more established pair of Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown all tallied seven carries. But the game-plan failed to get the backs open as receivers. The three running backs gained just 11 yards on six targets.
“I was a little disappointed that we didn't get a couple of things done more clearly with [the triple-option],” Cutcliffe said. “It’s something that we're going to continue to tinker with because we've got some really good backs, and we're going to try to find a way to run the ball better.”
The move to the triple-option seems to also indicate a lack of confidence in quarterback Quentin Harris’ arm. Owner of a 51.5 percent career completion percentage, Harris will need to be much more accurate to keep drives alive, and the drastic offensive shift means that a vast improvement is increasingly unlikely.
Harris has proven to be at his best when given the freedom to let it loose. Saturday’s sole scoring drive for the Blue Devils came when they moved to a more pass-heavy attack. On Duke’s field-goal drive to conclude the second half, Harris delivered a 37-yard strike to Scott Bracey, and drew a pass interference penalty on another deep ball, this time to Aaron Young.
Should the Blue Devil offense make any noise this season, the triple-option will not be the cause. Harris needs to establish himself as a passer, an impossible task when running the option.
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It’s likely that Cutcliffe merely thought that surprising the Crimson Tide was the only way to put up some points on the fearsome defense. But if the triple-option stays as a consistent part of the Blue Devil offense, it could be a tough season in Durham.