The offensive fad of 2010 shot down No. 3 Boise State and the Broncos' national title hopes
This is an article from the Dec. 6, 2010 issue
The kick looked so good that Boise State coach Chris Petersen thrust his right arm into the frosty Reno air, ready to celebrate the Broncos' 25th straight win and their ongoing role as BCS party-crasher. But Kyle Brotzman's 26-yard field goal attempt with two seconds left in regulation at Nevada last Friday sailed just right. Minutes later the No. 3 Broncos' night went from nerve-racking to heart-wrenching: Brotzman's overtime field goal attempt, a 29-yarder, veered left, leaving the door open for the Wolf Pack's Anthony Martinez to nail a 34-yard field goal that sealed No. 19 Nevada's 34--31 upset win and ended Boise State's winning streak, its shot of getting into a BCS bowl and, most significant, any hope of reaching the BCS title game.
After watching his team bounce back from a 24--7 halftime deficit by outrushing Boise State 239--8 after the half, Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault called the victory, Nevada's first over a Top 10 opponent, "the greatest win this university has ever had."
It was also a ringing validation of the pistol offense, the Ault brainchild that has been the rage this season and was behind a handful of other upsets earlier in the year—including James Madison's 21--16 win over then No. 13 Virginia Tech on Sept. 11; the Wolf Pack's 52--31 evisceration of then No. 24 Cal on Sept. 17; and UCLA's 34--12 pasting of then No. 7 Texas on Sept. 25. A hybrid of the one-back set and the shotgun formation (hence its name), the pistol was first installed at Nevada in 2005, after Ault and his staff spent hours in the locker room debating and refining timing and spacing. Five years later the Top 25 is loaded with teams that have a pistol play or two in their offensive arsenal, including Oregon, Auburn, TCU, Stanford, Ohio State, Arkansas, Boise State, Oklahoma, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Alabama, Florida State, Mississippi State, Northern Illinois and Hawaii.
In the pistol formation the quarterback lines up four yards behind center, about a yard short of the typical shotgun setup, and the running back lines up three yards directly behind him. The alignment has several advantages: It gives the running back more room to build momentum for a downhill run and more time to read the defense than the shotgun does, and it gives the quarterback a better view of the defense, better depth on his drops and more time to throw and execute play-action passes than being under center does. And with the running back hidden behind the quarterback, linebackers don't get tipped to the direction the play will run. Against a team with a dual-threat quarterback such as the Wolf Pack's 6'6" senior Colin Kaepernick, the defense has to guard against the option while defending both sides of the field. "It's a scheme that requires a lot of attention by defenses," says UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who switched from a pro-style offense to the pistol this year, with mixed results. (The Bruins are 4--7.) "The defense has to keep track of offensive players, so it slows down and becomes a little less aggressive. That gives you more air to run the ball into."
The 64-year-old Ault, a Nevada lifer and college football Hall of Famer who is the only coach in history to orchestrate the nation's top passing attack (416.3 yards per game in 1995) and the nation's top running attack (344.9 in 2009), has a team that is running the offense to near perfection. Behind senior tailback Vai Taua (1,372 rushing yards, eighth in the nation) and Kaepernick (2,671 yards passing, 1,029 yards rushing), the Pack is 11--1 and cracked the Top 25 this season for the first time since 1948.
"What Nevada has right now is the perfect storm," says former San Jose State coach Dick Tomey, who went 1--4 against the Pack from 2005 through '09. "They have the perfect guy to run [the pistol]. Kaepernick is so much faster than you can believe, he's got a great arm and a great understanding of the offense, and his arms are so long he can read [the defense] forever."
Against Boise State, Kaepernick passed for 259 yards and ran for 45 while Taua gained 131, making hash of the nation's No. 1 rushing defense. "I kept hearing how good their defense is—and it is—that we haven't seen a defense like this," said Ault after the game. "As I told our players this morning [the Broncos], haven't seen an offense like ours."