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College Football: Understanding Nevada's Pistol Offense

Contributed by: Todd DeVries
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2011 10:42 AM

It isnt often that a 64 year old is on the cutting edge of the football world, but Nevadas Chris Ault has become the trendiest college football coach in America. The reason? Aults brainchild, the Pistol offense. What is it? And where did Ault come up with it? Another big play for The Wolfpack has been there Horn Play, which is very simi

It isn't often that a 64 year old is on the cutting edge of the football world, but Nevada's Chris Ault has become the trendiest college football coach in America.  The reason?  Ault's brainchild, the Pistol offense.  What is it?  And where did Ault come up with it?

Coach Ault first concocted this offense in the winter of 2005.  Ault had just finished coaching his first season in his third stint as head coach of The Wolfpack. 

He started coaching at the university in 1976 using the Wing T offense.  Through the years, Ault has also been an "I" formation guy and a pass happy one as well.  His 1995 team led the nation in passing yards. And according to The New York Times, he is also credited with inventing the jailbreak screen. 

Coach Ault has never pigeon holed himself to one single offense or a single idea. 

In 2005, guys like Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer were having great success with their shotgun spread offenses.  They were spreading the field with receivers and running the inside and outside zone-read stuff along with the option. 

Ault liked what he saw but felt that the typical shotgun requires too much side to side running.  He wanted to be able to use the inside and outside zone runs but he didn't want to give up the downhill running that the "I" formation provides.

The typical alignment in the shotgun has the quarterback standing at five yards from the center with the running back a yard or so away from him to the right or left.  Ault's original idea was to put the quarterback three yards back and the running back at seven yards directly behind the quarterback.

So Ault and his staff began to work on the timing of the hand-offs during a coaches' meeting in 2005. At the skepticism of the assistants, they eventually settled on the quarterback's depth being at four yards because the timing just seemed to work with the seven yard depth of the back.

Now, this unusual alignment wouldn't be so trendy if not for the results.  The Wolfpack led the nation in total yardage in 2010 and finished second in 2009.

So, what is making this offense so deadly?

As Chris Brown at Dr. Saturday once wrote, this offense gives you "the best of both worlds."  You get all the zone runs along with all the downhill running of the "I" formation because the back is exactly where he'd align in the "I."

But Coach Ault doesn't stop there. 

One of Nevada's best plays has been the "Veer".  Nevada likes to to have their entire line "block down", that is, just cave in the backside of the defense, leaving the play-side defensive end unblocked. By not blocking the defensive end, they can get double teams on the other d-lineman and then work to the linebackers. If the unblocked defensive end goes after the back, the quarterback will just keep it and take it to the outside for a nice gain.  If the end plays the quarterback, he will just give it to the back and let him run through the void that has been created by all the double teams.  The website Dr. Saturday has video of this play along with the play schematics.

Another big play for The Wolfpack has been there "Horn Play", which is very similar to the old Wing T buck sweep - no surprise because of Ault's background with the Wing T.  This play is always run to the tight end side (Nevada is almost always in a one back, one tight end, and three receiver set.)  Again, this play calls for the entire line to block down but uses two pulling lineman to come around the outside and lead the way for the running back. or YouTube has video of this play.

Since Nevada's running game has been so good it is no surprise that the majority of their yardage in the passing game has come from the play-action pass.  They like use bootleg action off the inside zone (one of their bread and butter running plays) to get the quarterback out of the pocket and give him a simple half field read versus a secondary that many times gets out of position due to the run fake. 

Being in the Pistol also give The Wolfpack the ability to use a straight drop-back play-action pass off one of their off-tackle plays.  With the back aligns directly behind the quarterback, the quarterback can sell the fake much easier.  This can bring the linebackers up and really open up those seam routes every team loves to hit against those zone defenses.

Their bread and butter play in the quick game is the "Y-option".  When they use this play they like to get into a "trey" formation, a tight end and two receivers aligned on the same side.  This leaves the other receiver in a one on one match-up if the defense decides to play man coverage.  On the three receiver side the tight end runs an option route.  His route is determined by the defense.  He can run inside or outside versus man or just "find some grass" versus a zone and settle.  The inside receiver immediately runs to the flat and the outside receiver runs a go route. 

This play is very effective versus a Cover Three zone.  When the inside receiver runs his flat route this creates a void between the inside linebacker and the flat defender.  This is the void that the tight end will settle in and look for the ball at about five yards.  If the flat defender takes away the tight end the flat route is now open.

Versus a Cover Two, the quarterback can work the area between the safety and the squatting cornerback down the sideline.  If the corner stays with the outside receiver too long, the quarterback can hit the flat route immediately.  Of course an outside release on the go route is critical, because if he releases inside the corner will see the flat route coming at him and blow it up.  The tight end will find a void and settle.  He can be the first option or the third depending on how the coaches coach this route.

Versus Man Coverage, the single receiver will have plenty of room to operate and his route can be signaled to him depending of the defender's leverage.  He will now be the first option.

Now, none of the plays in Nevada's Pistol offense are foreign to anyone they play.  But this new way of aligning players has allowed Ault and his staff to do much more in the run game than just about anyone else.  What makes them so effective is that their execution has not suffered despite all of the blocking schemes that their offensive line has to learn.

Most teams are scaling back their offenses in favor of execution and tempo,  Not Coach Ault.

And with the eye popping statistics this offense has been putting up the last few years, who's going to argue?

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