Football: Pistol offense gaining popularity nationally
Chris Ault teaches as many students as any college professor in the nation.
“The Pistol (the Nevada Wolf Pack football offense) now is a hot topic all around the country,” the 63-year-old Wolf Pack head coach said. “I can’t tell you how many coaches call me in the off-season and want to talk about it. That’s what I do in the off-season now. I go and talk to coaches all over the country. I could do that every week if I wanted to.
“It’s incredible. But it’s a lot of fun. We’ve enjoyed talking to a lot of people all over the country.”
The Pied Piper of the Pistol has followers from west coast to east coast and all campuses in between. There will be dozens of college football teams, ranging from Alabama, LSU, Indiana as well as the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, using some aspect of the Pack’s Pistol this year. A new convert this past off-season was the UCLA Bruins, who visited Reno last winter.
“Rick (head coach Neuheisel), Norm (offensive coordinator Chow) and a couple of their other coaches were here for two days,” Ault said. “And we went down there, too. They really studied it. They liked the running game aspect of it. We had a great time talking football with those guys.”
Neuheisel, like all coaches tend to do, was quick to put his stamp on Ault’s Pistol this spring, calling it “The Revolver,” because “it’s going to be more loaded.”
It is difficult to imagine the Pistol having more bullets than the Pack’s version in 2009. The Wolf Pack led the nation in rushing at 345 yards a game and were second in total offense at 506 yards. The Pack also became the first team in college football history with three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
“I tell people, ‘That’s something you may never see in your lifetime again,'” said Ault of the Pack’s trio of 1,000-yard rushers (quarterback Colin Kaepernick and backs Luke Lippincott and Vai Taua).
Ault’s intention, when he devised the Pistol after the 2004 season was to beef up the run game by getting the quarterback more involved. No coach in the history of the sport has probably succeeded with his plan as well as Ault did a year ago.
“To me, it was about running the ball until the other team proved they could stop it,” said Kaepernick. “There were games when we really didn’t have to throw a pass to win. Nobody really proved they could stop our run game all year.”
The Pack ran all over their opponents in 2009, even in games they didn’t win. The Pack ran for 153 yards on Notre Dame, 169 on Colorado State, 218 on Missouri, 242 on Boise State and 137 on SMU, all losses.
“The run game was our bread and butter,” said Taua, breaking out into a huge grin. “You don’t go away from your bread and butter.”
The run game, however, literally overwhelmed the Pack passing attack, turning it into an afterthought. In one three-game stretch, in blowout victories over San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State, the Pack ran the ball a mind-boggling 170 times for 1,552 yards and 22 touchdowns combined, numbers that few teams in the history of college football have ever dreamed of in a three-game stretch.
In those same three games the Pack attempted just 41 passes and gained just 289 yards combined. Past Pack quarterbacks like Eric Beavers, John Dutton, Chris Vargas, Mike Maxwell, David Neill and even Kaepernick himself, used to routinely do that in one afternoon.
“We planned on throwing the ball more last year,” Ault said. “But as we got into the season we started doing different things in our running game because we were having so much success. Our running game just somewhat exploded and took off.”
Kaepernick was more than happy to put his right arm in storage last season.
“To me, it’s not about how many times we throw the ball,” he said. “It’s about keeping drives alive, keeping the chains moving.”
The Pack quarterback, though, admits that the running game’s success ultimately hurt the passing game. When the Pack needed the aerial attack late in the year, in losses to Boise State and SMU, it just wasn’t there. Somebody forgot to reload the Pistol with all of its bullets.
“Yes, the run game did hurt the passing game a little,” Kaepernick said. “We kept on practicing it and working on it but when you don’t use it that much in the game, it’s only natural to be a little out of sync.”
The passing game, Ault said, is the next phase of the Pistol.
“Where this Pistol offense has to go next is to create some consistency in the passing game,” said Ault, the only coach in the history of college football to have his offense lead the nation in passing (1995) and rushing (2009). “We have to improve the efficiency in the passing game and Kap is the key to that.”
Kaepernick, whom Ault calls “the best running quarterback in the country,” is on the same page as his head coach.
“The passing game is always about accuracy,” Kaepernick said. “I don’t want to throw balls that our receivers can’t catch. That’s what I have to improve on.”
The Pied Piper of the Pistol knows as well as anyone that an offense that ceases to evolve is an offense that will get you a 5-8 season.
“The great thing about this offense is that no matter what offense you run, you can take some aspect of it,” Ault said. “Coaches call us and talk about it and we love it because we also learn from them. We ask them what they are doing and we can use that in our offense. You always have to take it to the next level. Last year it was the two-back system. This year it’s about more efficiency in the passing game.”
Now in it’s sixth year, the Pistol not only has rejuvenated the Pack running game, it also energized its head coach.
“I’m more involved now because of the Pistol,” Ault said. “It’s a lot of fun. It keeps me enthused and excited and it’s all because of the Pistol.
“The neat thing about it is that this is something that’s ours. When people talk about the Pistol, they say it’s Nevada’s Pistol. This is something that belongs to this university.”