The BYU defense jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire this weekend as they welcome the Nevada Wolf Pack and their pistol offense to LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday.
Led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Nevada is averaging 302 yards per game rushing and 560 yards of total offense.
In their 52-31 victory over California last Friday, the Wolf Pack’s pistol shot holes in what was the nation’s top-ranked defense, rolling up 497 yards on the Bears.
That’s not good news for a BYU defense that enters the game giving up 272 yards rushing and 433 total yards per game.
Its easy to understand why BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said that Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack have him losing sleep this week.
Nevada is coached by Chris Ault, one of only two active coaches to already be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (Joe Paterno is the other).
Since Ault invented and installed the pistol at Nevada in 2005, his program is fourth in the country in accumulated rushing yardage and fifth in total offense.
The pistol is an ingenious formation that makes life difficult on opposing defenses. It would be more aptly named the sawed-off shotgun though, with the quarterback lined up in a shortened shotgun, typically four yards behind the center instead of the traditional six or seven yards.
Lining the quarterback up in that way gives him the advantage of getting the better looks and easier reads that a quarterback gets in the shotgun/spread formation, while allowing the running back to be aligned directly behind the quarterback, instead of off to the side as in the traditional shotgun.
There are several advantages to the pistol formation.
First, it makes it difficult for the defense to get a read on the running back since he is lined up in the same place for every play; second, it allows for all of the spread read-type plays that Urban Meyer made famous; third, it provides a very effective formation to run the veer option out of; and finally, since the running back is lined up behind the QB, it is very effective in setting up play-action passes, something that is significantly sacrificed in the typical shotgun formation.
Many people not familiar with Nevada’s pistol are surprised to discover that it is first and foremost a power running offense. Ault built his reputation as a coach utilizing the old I-formation. He likes his offense to get north and south and then complement that with a twist on the old student-body-left and student-body-right sweeps.
Nevada’s version of the sweep is called the “Horn,” and it's one of their favorite plays. When they run it, or any other running play for that matter, the Pack may pull guards, tackles, the center, and even the tight end.
They look to make Air Force-like cut blocks, while the receivers take care of the defensive backs (Nevada receivers are just as good at blocking as they are catching passes). All of this is designed to totally collapse the defense on the edge and create a big play on the outside.
Here’s a look at the Horn against Fresno State. Watch how the Wolf Pack linemen all block down towards the side the ball is going and the center pulls to lead the way for the running back. Also notice the block of the WR on the Fresno cornerback.
Mix in spread option elements and veer option plays with a quarterback that can both run and throw like Kaepernick can, and you have a very difficult offense to defend.
The pistol versions of the read option and veer option are unique in that they purposefully leave a player unblocked in the front seven. This allows double-team blocking at the point of attack and then the quarterback reads the unblocked player. If executed properly, the quarterback can put that defender in a no-win situation every time.
In this clip of Nevada’s read option against Missouri, watch the unblocked defensive end (No. 3) crash down and Kaepernick keep the ball to the outside. Also notice how the tight end Virgil Green (No. 85) pulls to pick up the outside linebacker.
In this clip, notice the double-team block on Missouri’s left DT and how the the defensive end (No. 85) is left unblocked. When he comes up the field, Kaepernick gives the ball to his back, who has a big hole due to the double-team block of the center and right guard.
Kaepernick is a master at running the pistol. He is a deceptively fast, 6′6″, 225-pound athlete that makes great reads in the option, is an excellent ball-handler, runs the ball extremely well (9.5 yards per carry), and is very effective in the passing game. He leads the Wolf Pack in rushing so far this season with a 123-yard average, while completing 70 percent of his passes for 243 yards per game.
Nevada’s other primary weapon on offense is Vai Taua, a 220-pound back that is very effective between the tackles on dives and options, as well as on the Horn to the outside.
Last season he rushed for over 1,300 yards, and he averages 107 yards per game this year. He’s not shifty, but rather a hard-nosed runner that gashes the underbelly of opposing defenses. The pistol alignment allows him to hit the line between the tackles hard and fast, often resulting in big gains right up the gut.
The tight end Green and Z receiver Rishard Mathews are the leading receivers in the pistol passing game with 12 catches apiece. All of the wideouts are big targets, going 6′2″ to 6′3″ and averaging 205 pounds, and as mentioned above all of them are solid blockers.
All added up, it’s no wonder that the Wolf Pack is averaging nearly 51 points per game as they arrive in Provo this week. No doubt, the Cougar staff and defenders have their hands full.