Inside Nevada’s Pistol Offense, Pt. 1

If you think of the modern shotgun-based, spread-option run game to consist of zone runs and draws, the zone read, and different flavors of the veer and speed option, it’s easy to see that the running back’s position is a pre-snap declaration of where possible plays can go, and that the best running plays are wide plays without much interior balance.  All of the runs are fairly slow since the back gets the ball after only a step or two (at most), and the trickier meshes involved in veers and reads slow the play further.

Opposing coaches, of course, learned these limitations a long time ago.  While I haven’t heard it confirmed, it seems like defensive coordinators who play against teams that favor these plays have built-in rules for fluid “scrape exchanges” where a defensive end who is a likely read target slants hard to the inside, while a ‘backer fills the void behind him.  During the mesh, the quarterback reads the end and runs to fill the vacated gap, not realizing the linebacker on that side is ready to meet him.  Since the running back’s position determines the read, the scrape exchange can be a situational rule that’s used effectively even if the back flops sides right before the snap (provided the defensive players communicate effectively.)  Zone blitzes can effectively do the same thing when aligned properly.  Finally, defensive linemen can singly complicate the read by shuffling down the backside; the combination of squared shoulders and lateral movement can make a defender’s intent hard to recognize.

Nevada head coach Chris Ault was familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of these different schemes when he looked to modernize his I-formation offense in 2005; the aspect that concerned him most was the lack of a powerful inside run game.  He wanted to add the best parts of the shotgun game and leave the bad parts behind.  His idea was to line the QB in a shortened shotgun position four-and-a-half yards behind center, with a halfback directly behind him.  It was a novel solution (if anyone had ever used it before, it’s been lost to history) that provided quarterbacks with the pass-protection and vision benefits afforded by the shotgun snap, while letting Ault keep the I-formation’s fast-hitting, downhill run attack.

Pistol formation with an 11 personnel set vs a 4-2-5 defense.

Ault also needed to turn around a Nevada program that was not only struggling, but one he had essentially hired himself to coach, as he had been head coach, athletic director, or a combination of the two for almost all of 1976-2004.  His first season back was an inauspicious 5-7 slog that prompted action, including his examination of spread teams.

During a 2010 presentation for Nike’s Coach of the Year clinics, he recalled that when he brought the pistol concept before his staff in January of 2005, “they looked at me as if I had really lost my marbles.”  They began by installing it as a short-yardage package and discovered new wrinkles.  Perhaps most important was that middle-of-the-field defenders had a hard time seeing the running back if he was lined up three yards behind the QB, especially when the back made his cut on inside zone plays.  This level of obscurity meant that despite being lined up about a yard deeper in the backfield than in the I-formation, backs not only hit the line of scrimmage with greater actual speed, they were perceived to be even faster than that.

While Nevada uses the pistol with bunch sets and multiple wingbacks, their base set is an 11 group (one back, one tight end, three receivers.)  The formation was married with Nevada’s tight zone game; just about every team runs the inside zone these days, though Nevada takes “inside” to the extreme.  Where most teams tell their backs to aim for the playside guard’s outer hip, Wolf Pack runners aim inside the guard.  The linemen take short, two-foot splits across the line and their initial play-side steps focus more on forward movement than you’ll see in some schemes.  (I’ve left out the blocking schemes to help focus on the backfield movement; Nevada blocks the inside zone like everyone else by focusing on double-teaming the defensive tackles and then moving up to the second-level defenders.)  When paired with bruising backs, Nevada’s inside zone is the football equivalent of grabbing somebody by the lapels and head-butting him for a few quarters.  The quarterback completes the play with a boot action to help stall the backside end.

Nevada’s inside zone play; note QB boot off the play.

Even against talented defenses (their 2011 Bowl Game vs. Boston College has a lot of clips floating around), you’ll see Nevada pick up yardage on this play because the back is so quick to the hole that penetrating linemen can’t get their bearings straight fast enough to make the tackle.  Teams that rely on their middle linebacker to secure both A-gaps are put under even more pressure.

This twist on the inside zone is the base play that an entire offense is built around.  Like any good base play, it’s simple to teach, hard to screw up, hard for a defense to disguise an approach to defeat it, and sets the stage for a host of subsequent plays.  By threatening the very center of the defense with undeniable immediacy, second-level defenders (particularly outside linebackers) have to be cautious when pressing the line of scrimmage, and their coaches have to weigh the value of traditional run blitzes and other elements to stop spread run games.

In part two, we’ll look at how Ault made this brand of inside zone into the base element of what’s essentially a unique and complete offense as worthy of its own moniker as better-known peers.

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