The last time he saw a wishbone brand of offense?
“A long time,” he said thinking hard. “We played Army and they used to run the wishbone when I was at Michigan State as defensive coordinator in the 80s, played Navy when I was the head coach at Toledo. That might be the last time.”
So there have been a few refresher courses in the now-rare offense No. 3 Alabama will see when Georgia
Southern visits Saturday. The Eagles, ranked third in the Football Championship Subdivision, use a variation known as the flexbone. It’s an offshoot of the wishbone formation used by Bear Bryant teams of the 1970s.
Running plays account for 85 percent of the snaps for the top rushing team in the FCS. The Eagles average 320.4 ground yards a game and the 634 running yards rolled up on Western Carolina on Sept. 24 was third-most in school history.
The brand of flexbone used at Georgia Southern is a product of coach Jeff Monken’s years as an assistant under Paul Johnson at Navy, then Georgia Tech. When he took over the Eagle program two years ago, the basic yet hard-to-defend scheme came with him.
One benefit of the formation is its symmetry. Two receivers are typically sent wide to either side of the formation while two A-backs line up behind both tackles.
Defenses can’t overload the strong side if there isn’t one until the last second. The quick motion of either A-back immediately before the snap is the one of the only pre-snap reads a defense can make.
The basic triple option requires the defense to hold the middle in case of a fullback dive while protecting both ends of the line against two potential runners.
The element of surprise is built in.
Though the Georgia Southern official game notes include an entry titled “We don’t need no stinking passing,” it is always a threat. With Georgia Tech transfer Jaybo Shaw taking the snaps, the Eagles have completed 56-of-103 passes for an average of 20.3 yards per reception.
“You have to focus in this game every play for the 10 passes that they’re going to throw,” Saban said. “But our corners are going to be involved in the run support element of what’s going on, too, and all the plays that they run.”
Saban said he did extra homework on the flexbone over the summer to prepare for the challenge most of his players have never seen.
All these potential issues must give Monken confidence, right?
“No. It’s not any comfort,” he said. “Gosh, they are so good. I mean, no. I know they will be very well prepared. I know their coaches will have a great game plan for us. What we do is different, certainly it is. … As I said, I worked for Paul Johnson for 13 years, he had a saying: ‘Physical superiority cancels all theory.”
And Alabama’s defense appears to be just that. No FBS team has rushed for more than 148 yards on the unit ranked first nationally. The second-best defense allows 30 more than Alabama’s 51.9-yard average allowance.
Shaw said he’s expects the defensive-minded Saban “to have all kinds of stuff for us.”
His coach was even more realistic about this team’s chances against a roster stocked with NFL talent.
“They give up 7.1 points a game to their opponents. I never heard of anything like that,” Monken said. “They are a great, great defense — great defense. Big, physical, fast and extremely well coached.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I have no idea how you do it. I don’t. We are who we are. We have to do the best we can to get our kids to play to the best of their ability. That’s all we can do.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @UARollTide_Star