Montana’s Semore brings fresh ideas to defending Cal Poly

September 21, 2016

MISSOULA — It wasn’t that long ago that Jason Semore was helping prepare Oklahoma State defenders for the rigors of facing Big 12 offenses.

This week something said by Semore’s former mentor, Glenn Spencer, the OSU defensive coordinator during the younger coach’s two seasons (2012-13) as an assistant in Stillwater, has been popping into Semore’s head a lot.

“He told me back in the day, ‘Your rite of passage as a defensive coordinator is if you can stop the option,’” recalled Semore, now Montana’s first-year coordinator. “That’s always the biggest headache, you know what I mean?”

Semore will get his first shot at earning that badge of honor this week when his Grizzlies head to San Luis Obispo, Calif., for a matchup with Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option. The Mustangs have led the FCS in rushing yards in each of the past three seasons, topping out at 387.3 per game in 2015, behind its three-headed attack.

Spencer was surrounded by the option as a defensive lineman during his playing days at Georgia Tech, a program notorious for its use of the scheme. He then coached both running backs and the defensive line at his alma mater before landing at Oklahoma State. For Semore, Montana’s inventive coordinator who followed coach Bob Stitt from Colorado School of Mines, Saturday will mark his first attempt stopping the unique offense as a play-caller.

He was the Grizzlies’ defensive secondary coach in 2015 when Cal Poly escaped Missoula with a 20-19 victory, a game built on the back of 330 rushing yards by the visitors. Montana has struggled against such offenses in the past – UM has lost three of five vs. Poly since 2010 and also fell to option-happy Wofford in the 2007 FCS playoffs – and it’s Semore’s job to change the story line.

Semore’s approach to stopping the option has some contrasts to Montana’s game plan of the past under former coordinator Ty Gregorak, said junior linebacker Connor Strahm. Just don’t ask for specifics.

“We’re going to have a couple different calls and be able to make adjustments. We’re going to have a different approach,” said Strahm, wording his response cautiously as to not give away company secrets.

Semore is careful as well, but he’s more than willing to discuss philosophy. The obvious goal on defense is limiting what the opponent can do, which can be tricky against a triple option that, by definition, gives a team several rushing choices on every play.

With Cal Poly that typically means a quarterback (Dano Graves), fullback (Joe Protheroe) and slot back (Kori Garcia), all of whom are lined up in the backfield and moving with each play. The trio’s duplicity helped Poly score a 38-31 road upset over then-ninth-ranked South Dakota State last week.

The Mustangs ran for 440 yards in that game and average 392.3 per game this season.

“A lot of people’s strategy involves, ‘Well, we’re going to take the dive away, or we’re going to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand as soon as possible,’” Semore explained. “I think that’s a mistake, to try and make them one-sided in their run game.

“They don’t care how you defend them. They can hurt you (running) in a lot of different ways. I think the key to stopping the triple option is presenting different problems for what they’re trying to do, as far as looks and alignments and things like that.”

So instead of forcing the Mustangs into running to a certain gap or with a certain player – sort of like SDSU did, then was punished to the tune of 217 yards and two touchdowns by Protheroe last week – Semore wants his defense to mask its intention and allow Poly to choose incorrectly.

That’s certainly easier said than done, Semore acknowledged.

“The hard part of that is the more stuff you do, the harder it is to be gap sound,” he said. “They’re better at what they do than you just putting (an option specific) defense in for one or two weeks.

“As a defense coordinator you’ve got to be smart about that. We’re trying to have a game plan that gets that accomplished, but it’s not so crazy that we don’t know what we’re doing out there.”

Coming off a bye and having two weeks to prepare will help, considering Cal Poly is the lone option-based offense the Griz will face this year. If that proves true and the Griz can avenge last year’s last-second loss to the Mustangs, Montana’s reliable defense will get another gold star in a season beginning to brim with them.

And Semore will have earned his true coordinator stripes.