July 08, 2010
Part of the Doc's Mid-Major Week.
On paper, 2009 was the year coach Chris Ault's patented "Pistol" offense really arrived at Nevada, in the form of one of the most statistically dominant rushing attack in recent memory. The Wolf Pack averaged more yards per carry (7.3) than any team of the last decade, and more yards per game on the ground (344.9) than any team since Nebraska's mighty triple-option attack in 2000. They were the first team in NCAA history to produce three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season; quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott all averaged more than seven yards per carry, and the top three backups all averaged well over six. They topped 300 yards rushing in every game of an eight-game winning streak in October and November, at one point piling up 1,552 yards and 22 touchdowns in just three weeks, merciless, back-to-back-to-back blowouts over San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State.
It's easy to deride those defenses as soft (they were, even by WAC standards), but the Pack also ripped off more yards rushing than all but one other team against both of the best run defenses they faced, Missouri (218 yards) and Boise State (242). Essentially, it's the run-based counterpart to Houston's prolific passing game, the only other system in the nation to average more than 500 yards and 35 points each of the last two years: After being shut out at Notre Dame in the season opener, Nevada's biggest hurdle was always keeping pace in shootouts opposite a nonexistent secondary. Even at its worst, the Pistol virtually always moves the sticks.
Yet it remains isolated to Nevada, this funky oddity that pops up two or three times a year on a random Friday-night game from the middle of a desert and always has to be explained anew ("See, it's like the shotgun, but the quarterback doesn't stand as far back..."). It's popped up elsewhere on occasion, most notably to take advantage of similarly big, athletic quarterbacks at Florida, Ohio State and LSU. But unlike its closest analog, the flexbone-style triple-option mastered by Georgia Tech and the service academies, the Pistol remains entirely Nevada's thing: It hasn't caught on anywhere else except as the occasional change-of-pace package, a kind of wrinkle that can be left on the cutting room floor on any given week.
That isolation is doubly surprising considering a) The flexbone's mainstream success at Georgia Tech, where Paul Johnson's unique brand of triple option has blown through the ACC at the same rate it's ripped through the more vulnerable defenses on Navy and Air Force's schedules for years, and b) The extreme versatility of the Pistol: It easily incorporates elements of the spread, the zone read, the triple-option, the veer, the zone stretch, old-school I-formation plunges between the tackles and all manner of play-action and bootleg passes, without requiring significant formation or personnel changes from one idea to the next. Prior to last year's steamrolling effort on the ground, it also produced 3,000-yard passing seasons in 2007 and 2008 and came up two yards shy of that line in 2005.
One explanation for the lack of popularity is that it's not really very "innovative" at all, just an arbitrary formation employed by a team that happens to be very good at executing the conventional plays it runs out of that formation. The easier answer is that no one really knows how to coach it: The Pistol is Ault's brainchild, and a relatively late one at that, dreamed up upon his return to the sideline after a decade-long hiatus in 2004. Ault has spent literally his entire career in Reno, most of it overseeing wide-open passing attacks; at 63, he isn't spreading the gospel anywhere else.
As it stands, there's a better than even chance that when Ault goes, the Pistol (at least as a coherent offensive system rather than the odd formation) goes with him, or shortly thereafter. Maybe not; these things take time, and there are no secrets when it comes to Xs and Os. But if you happen to come across the Pack against Cal on Sept. 17, or Boise State on Nov. 26, maybe give it a glance or two while you know you still can.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.