Xs and Os from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football. Part of the Doc's Mid-Major Week.
Since the dawn of the spread in major college football, we've seen a rise in two related phenomena: New and fairly innovative "spread" schemes (a good thing), and nicknames for those schemes (less so). In the '90s we had Nebraska's "Black Shirts" and the Arizona "Desert Swarm," while now we are treated to slightly less euphonic choices, like Texas Tech's "Airraid," the various "spread 'n shreds" of Rich Rodriguez, and now, the uninspiring "pistol" at Nevada.
But since Nevada coach and pistol brainchild Chris Ault made the switch from his old I-formation attack in 2005, the results have sounded pretty sweet. His team immediately improved by 30 yards and almost five points per game from 2004 (449.3 from 418.8 and 34.2 from 29.7, respectively), and improved its record from 5-7 to 9-3. The Pack have been to four straight bowl games for the first time in school history, and 2008 was the offense's best year yet since Ault returned from retirement in '04: Nevada was fifth in the nation in total offense and twelfth in scoring, and, by most definitions, they did it with incredible balance, as one of only three D-1 teams to both rush and pass for over 3,000 yards. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the WAC offensive player of the year with more yards rushing and passing than Tim Tebow.
Pistol offense or pistol formation? Yet, unlike other noms d'offense, it's not entirely clear what the "pistol" is -- is it an entire offensive system, or just a formation? The term, being a play on the ubiquitous term "shotgun," refers in one sense simply to the set Nevada uses. Most shotgun offenses put their quarterback at five yards deep (some six, and Missouri puts theirs as deep as seven or eight) and the running back at five to six yards, aligned next to the quarterback. Nevada, by contrast, puts their quarterback only four yards back while the running back aligns directly behind him, between seven to ten yards deep depending on the play. But "offenses" are not the same as formations; a good offense involves a sensible grouping of plays and formations into a coherent whole. And while the pistol may have been conceived as simply a unique formation, the system Ault and Co. have developed has earned the name "pistol offense" by bringing a unique perspective to both the pistol and the spread.
When the offense is rolling (which it is most of the time these days), the pistol gives a team the best of both worlds: It has at its disposal all the Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez spread offense stuff, like the zone read and other gadgets, as well as the advantages of a "traditional" I-formation or pro-style single-back attack. Among these are that the runningback, aligning as he does behind the quarterback, tips no hand to the defense on the direction of the play, and the offense can get both good downhill running and play-action off those looks. Let's take a quick look at some specifics.
Just shoot me. The Wolfpack, like most other teams, rely heavily on the inside zone and zone read plays -- the now-ubiquitous shotgun play that came into vogue at Northwestern under Randy Walker in the late nineties and made Rich Rodriguez a rising star at West Virginia -- but the play that's really made Nevada's offense go the last two years is one Ault added to take advantage of quarterback Colin Kaepernick's running ability: the veer.
That term has traditionally referred to a specific type of triple-option some coaches use, but really is just one part of that concept. Nevada's version of the veer, a variety now coming into vogue again with spread teams like Florida, requires the line to "block down" to the side the run is going while leaving some normally very dangerous defender entirely unblocked -- that is the man the quarterback will "read." The reason the veer works so well, including when compared to the zone read, is that with the veer guarantees two things the zone read can't: Double-team blocks at the point of attack, and the ability to make the man the QB reads wrong, every time. (With the zone read you're just trying to control a backside pursuit defender. If he "stays home" for the quarterback, forcing a handoff, there is no guarantee the line will get double teams to the other side or that the back will find a hole.)
The veer is simple and yet quite deadly. And, from the diagram and video, you can see why the pistol set is so good for the necessary footwork, and why being in the pistol makes the read on the play so easy for the quarterback, as compared with both a shotgun set with a runningback aligned to the side or under center -- watch just how wrong Kaepernick is able to make the unblocked man (No. 94), and why that lets Nevada's other blockers completely cave in the rest of the defense, since they don't have to worry about him:
Old school with a new school twist. That's how Nevada puts its spin on the spread offense stuff, but what really makes Nevada different is its emphasis on old school plays in the context of its new school offense. As I mentioned above, Nevada head coach Chris Ault was an I-formation guy for a long time, and you can still see it in his philosophy. He's more than happy to follow up the zone read, jet sweep or veer with some basic off-tackle runs, which he can do easily because his tailback is in the same place he would be in the I:
And what doubly makes the set work is that Ault can dial-up rather traditional quarterback faking for bootlegs and play-action, which spread teams have usually struggled with making convincing. (There's a reason play-action master Peyton Manning has always done his best faking from under center.) As the clips below show, an athletic, versatile guy like Kaepernick can really emphasize the play-action to put the defense in a bind.
When the pistol works, it's the best of both worlds for Nevada: Both I-formation and spread, both old and new school. Ultimately, however, there's only so much magic in simply putting your running back behind your quarterback -- that's not exactly a novel proposition. What has made Nevada dynamic offense go has been Ault and his staff's ability to teach these schemes and to adjust week-to-week. Without getting all Bill Callahan in a restricted space, Nevada actually has one of the most diverse playbooks in terms of the number of different blocking schemes; it's something they have developed to stay ahead of the game.
The larger question, though, is why no one else runs it except as an occasional novelty -- can this stuff work outside of the WAC? I would say so -- but not because the "pistol" is magical. Only because an offensive mind like Ault could coach it.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football. You can reach him spreadattack at yahoo, etc.