September 12, 2013

Film Study: Nevada's pistol offense in context

The Seminoles hit the field for round two of the Jameis Winston show, and perhaps more importantly, the second live action for Jeremy Pruitt's defense. Enter the Nevada Wolf Pack and the pistol offense. Though FSU fans have seen the pistol here and there (even in the Seminole offense itself at times), Nevada is the birthplace of the concept altogether. Let's look at some history behind the pistol, followed by application to this weekend's game.

Ault draws it up

In 2004, Nevada head coach Chris Ault needed a way to revamp and ignite his offense after a dismal 5-7 season. As the story goes, he watched countless hours of film until he came across a coach from New Hampshire running a high-paced, spread-option run offense which was having great success. That coach from New Hampshire would end up in Oregon and now with the Philadelphia Eagles. You know him as Chip Kelly.

Ault took some of the concepts from Kelly's offense, except he thought the running back would be at a greater advantage if lined up behind the quarterback instead of to his side. This allows for more momentum when running up the middle, while inhibiting the defenses ability to see which direction the back is headed. Ault coined this formation the "pistol" because the quarterback did not line up as far back as he does in the shotgun.

Ault would see immediate results as Nevada went from 5-7 to 9-3 with a victory over UCF in the Hawai'i Bowl. Ultimately the pistol formation would soar to new heights in popularity with the arrival of Colin Kaepernick. The combination of Ault and Kaepernick transformed this offense into the quarterback-driven run game the pistol has become today, and not just in college but in the NFL.

Following a loss in the New Mexico bowl to Arizona last season, Ault resigned as head coach. Brian Polian, who served as the special teams coach under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, has taken the reigns this season. Polian will retain the pistol offense for as long as Nick Rolovich is the offensive coordinator, as he was retained from Ault's staff.

Cody Fajardo, standing at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds is the Wolf Pack's starting quarterback and while he is not fooling anybody into thinking he is Kaepernick, he has posted impressive stats in his young career. As a sophomore, Fajardo completed 67% of his passes while throwing for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns (nine interceptions) and rushed for 1,121 yards and 12 touchdowns.

It should be noted that Fajardo has not seen a defense with the level of athlete that Florida State has, but it will be interesting to see how the Seminole's defense handles Nevada's pistol early on. It is an offense that requires discipline and the ability to read and react without thinking. Another test for a defense which still has many players digesting a completely new system.

Also worth noting is whether or not Fajardo will play this week. As of Thursday, he was listed as day-to-day with a knee injury.

Formation or offense?

The question comes up each time Nevada faces an opponent for the first time: "Is the pistol really an offense? It looks like a base formation." While that's a fair point, Chris Brown, founder of Smart Football and contributor to Grantland offered this thought when tackling the pistol way back in the Kaepernick days:

"'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."

The pistol brings the best of the shotgun and the best of the I-formation together. There's a downhill running game if inside zone or power is called, a natural ability for a quarterback to roll out on play action or for flood plays, plus the ability for a quarterback to diagnose defenses from a better visual point of perspective. And it allows for spread tactics all to itself, explained further below.

Nevada's characteristics


Make no mistake, no offense at full speed goes quite like Oregon's offense. But Nevada comes pretty close, and in 2012, its offense actually ran more plays per game. The Wolfpack ran an average of 83 plays in its 13 games last season, with an average of 22.1 seconds coming off the game clock between each snap. Compare that to Oregon, and the results are fairly close - the Ducks ran an average of 81.4 plays a game, but with a miniscule 20.4 seconds of game clock elapsing between plays. Nevada controlled the ball for 30 minutes, 38 seconds a game compared to Oregon's 27:48 time of possession.

For reference, in taking a look at the 2012 BCS Championship combatants, which were not known for up-tempo pace, the difference is notable. Notre Dame ran its offense at a clip of 27.7 seconds per play off the game clock, while Alabama controlled pace as methodically as one might think: 30.2 seconds of game clock elapsed per play run.

Of course these numbers can't all exist in a perfect vacuum. Defensive aptitude plays a role in what an offense can do, and in Nevada's case, it is not a top-25 program. Athlete-for-athlete and conference competition are drastically different for the Wolfpack and Ducks, but the numbers help illustrate when Nevada is rolling along, it does so rapidly.

We were told that Florida State's goal this week is to keep Nevada underneath 80 plays. Extrapolate that out, factoring in the 30-plus point betting spread, and figure that the Seminoles will be looking to keep the Wolf Pack under 40 for the first half, when the game could be decided.


A staple of the modern pistol offense is the veer option. If the play were run out of the shotgun, it would be known as a zone read or read option, but in the Ault-created pistol, it is known as the veer option, "Samurai" or "Ride and Decide."

The concept of the play is simple enough: from pistol formation with standard depth, the offensive line blocks all but the rush end to the play side (this can be an outside linebacker or a traditional defensive end). It is the quarterback's job to make the read from here to keep or let the tailback attack up the field between the tackles.

As you can see in the photo above, the red path is for the quarterback to take if the read defender crashes toward the tailback. If that same defender stays at home and squares to the quarterback, the tailback continues up the blue path. In this particular example, the read defender squares up, and Nevada rushes for roughly a dozen yards up the middle.

Had the defender crashed toward the tailback, the design offers the advantage of an offensive tackle up the field sealing a linebacker, plus a wideout blocking a defensive back. Truly, this play if run to the perimeter turns the numbers advantage in favor of the offense. The Green Bay Packers found this out in a brutal way against Nevada alumnus Colin Kaepernick last winter in the NFL playoffs.


The pistol offense can be run with two receivers, a tight end and an H-back, three receivers plus an H-back, or with multiple backs (a diamond look). All employ a host of different motions and blocking schemes.

One popular pre-snap motion is the "jet" motion. This derives from the threat of the "jet sweep", which is simply when a receiver runs across the backfield and laterally in front of the quarterback for a quick handoff instantly after the snap. The jet motion can bring triple-option qualities to the pistol, or it simply can be a decoy.

Blocking schemes cause confusion as well in the pistol. Run action blocks, where the front group block in a manner that is consistent with the running back's movement after the snap can draw a defense to over-pursue and free up a naked bootleg play action. With an athletic quarterback and a savvy H-back, a naked bootleg run-pass option can wreak havoc on aggressive defenses.

These are just some of the considerations for the Seminole defense this weekend, and while the point of attack should be soundly in FSU's favor, what can be learned is how disciplined the second level of 'Nole defenders really are against an offense that should keep them honest to their assignments.

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