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Golden Spotlight: Nevada Wolf Pack Pistol Offense

Normally I'd focus on every aspect of our opponent in the Golden Spotlight (like I did last week with Colorado), but I have literally zero tape on Nevada's defense and barely any background on them. All I know is they kind of sucked last year, so I'd be very disappointed if the Cal running attack finally didn't break out on Friday night. Otherwise this team is in trouble.

So today I'll focus on the big thing that success next week depends on, the Nevada Pistol. It's an offense that is maddening, frightening, and requires pounds worth of discipline from the defense. Today I'll break down the basics. Tomorrow I examine counter-strategies by the defense.

Here's a sample Pistol formation, where the Nevada offense is in blue, the Cal 3-4 defense in black.Pistol_formation_medium

The essence of the pistol balances the spread and pro-style aspects of offense. Let's talk about those elements in bullet points after the jump.

  • You'll have a quarterback (this year, Colin Kaepernick) that'll be able to stand in semi-shotgun (the QB is usually about five-six yards behind center in a standard shotgun--Nevada's pistol has him about a yard or two closer. Here he can still replicate what a pro-style quarterback does--throw from shotgun and release from shotgun. But he also has the ability to decide when to take it and run utilizing the zone read, or decide when to drop back and pass.
  • You'll have a running back (this year, Vai Taua, with occasional doses of Lampford Mark) standing behind the quarterback, probably around two to three yards behind him. He'll have similar responsibilities as a running back in the I-formation, but without a lead blocker--he'll be asked to move off tackle, attack the hole, and find the cutback lane. 
  • You'll have a wide receiver coming in motion on a jet sweep play (like the fly sweep, excet to provide essentially a variation of the triple option. The quarterback can handoff to the running back, keep it himself, or handoff to the wide receiver.
  • The offensive line (Steve Haley, John Bender, Jeff Meads, Jose Acuna, Chris Barker, a very strong unit) can run either pro-style blocking (mainly inside zone, where they'll usually double-team the defensive linemen, and then still unoccupied linemen move to the second level to try and occupy linebackers), or an element of spread blocking (usually a variation of outside zone, where the linemen try to get their bodies between the defensive back and the sidelines, but in).
  • These terms are nebulous by the way--blocking is blocking, and it's hardly any different from any other offense. But mixing those disparate elements in with what the quarterback is doing.
  • If the wide receiver does not get the ball, he usually acts similar to a pulling lineman and tries to block the freed linebacker.
  • In terms of the passing game, downfield receivers will generally act either as safety valves when it's a pass or block when it's a running play. They won't run many traditional pro routes other than verticals. Kaepernick has really improved throwing quick routes down the middle, and is also plenty adept at aiming the ball down the sidelines.

So those are the basics. Here are the gears.

The Veer


Nevada's bread and butter and their main version of the zone read. This is probably the most common play they use, often to deadly effectiveness. Instead of trying to block everyone on the defense (something I wouldn't recommend, especially for a team with such small linemen as Nevada's), they'll leave one man unblocked on the edge. Everyone else is playing to seal off the corner, very similar to outside zone (blocking the defender to the sideline).


Against a 3-4, because of the attention the line will have to show toward the rotating defensive line, I'd assume Nevada will chose to leave the outside linebacker (either Keith Browner or Mychal Kendricks, then Jarred Price) unguarded and make him read the play. I doubt this'll be the only permutation, as Kaepernick has shown he can read linebackers, defensive ends, and even defensive tackles. But the formula remains the same: The quarterback reads the unblocked defender and makes a decision about what to do with the ball.


If the unblocked defender being read bites inside to aim for the running back (labeled "FAKE"), the quarterback will fake the handoff and will sprint to the outside (labeled "REAL"). The outside linebacker will have left a wide-open lane for the quarterback to take the ball and go with it, and Kaepernick has been able to make people pay for that aggressiveness in the past.

nevada pistol veer (via smartfootballchris)


If the defender overpursues (and overpursuit isn't much, it can literally be one extra step forward) to watch out for the quarterback, the quarterback will handoff to the running back, who now has the inside running lane and will run right past the unblocked defender. Ideally, he'll have a big line in front of him, but ultimately the runner will probably take one hole to cut into and across.

Nevada Read Option Dive (RB Keep) 2 (via nevadawp)

The veer will probably be the most common play we see, since it allows Nevada the opportunity to use double teams to attack the defense. The blocking will be different on almost every play, but unless Nevada finds a weakness they can exploit elsewhere, this is probably the play they'll use the most.

Jet sweep/sweep fake


Here the wide receiver (probably Rishard Matthews) comes back and takes the handoff from the shotgun set rather than the quarterback taking a step back under center (the more commonly used fly sweep).

This has some advantages. For one, the man in motion will generally be trailed by a cornerback or a linebacker, so Nevada can use that to take a good run-stuffing defender out of the play.

Again, I expect Nevada to be reading a lot more than they'll be blocking straight up. There are plenty of different blocking schemes the Wolf Pack can use. I suspect Nevada will leave an athletic defensive end alone on this one (or simply leave a beastly defensive tackle to roam free, like Oregon did last year). It's just easier for a running back to go outside and block a defensive back rather than go inside and block one of the front seven men. There are other possibilities of course.


The cues are the same. The quarterback determines what the unblocked defender will do by monitoring his movements. He'll handoff to the wide receiver if he sees the defender taking steps in front of him, and he'll keep it if the defender keeps on taking steps toward his outside area. Committing to either scenario is likely to ensure a sizable pickup if the blocking downfield is solid.

The first big play in last week's Colorado State game came off a simulated receiver sweep (Hat-tip to Kodiak for sending the footage along to me). Essentially the receiver from the left came in and faked the handoff. The defensive tackle was left unblocked and Kaepernick took advantage of his slow-footedness to race past him for a 40 yard gain. I'd be interested to see if the Wolf Pack signal-caller tries the same trick on one of Cal's nose tackles, but I'd guess they'll use a variant of this and read edge rushers than risk having to deal with the nasty interior linemen. You never know though--Kaepernick might have the confidence that he can sell a receiver handoff and get away with it.

Nevada Read Option Dive vs. Missouri (QB keep) (via nevadawp)

The other variant is that the wide receiver comes in motion, but the quarterback never fakes the handoff to him. He instead fakes it or hands it off to the running back after reading the freed edge rusher, while the wide receiver goes out to block whoever is left unblocked (usually the free safety). The receiver suddenly takes the form of a pulling, so you see zone blocking principles by the defenders, but some vestiges of man blocking by the receivers.

Designed handoff


Once the spread elements of the Nevada offense get going, Ault is happy to dial up a few pro-style plays. Keep in mind that while the impetus of the Wolf Pack offense is spread-based, its blocking schemes are primarily the same as anything you'd see from the Bears. So get ready for a faster set of I-formation plays (think if the fullback was handling the ball and giving it to the running back rather than the quarterback coming back to pass).

This has its advantages and its disadvantages. The quarterback's no longer reading the defender, so you're running the risk of letting him come off the edge and tackle the running back for a loss. However, because your back is now to the unblocked defender, he still has to be disciplined and guess whether you're handing it off for a run or dropping back for a quick bubble screen. If you don't have faith you can let him come off the edge, you might have to do some cutblocking to keep him up.

Sometimes they'll mix it up. They'll send the wide receiver in motion to give the defense the thought that a jet sweep might be coming, leave a defensive end or outside linebacker unblocked, and then the in-motion receiver will come over and block him out (like the diagram above).

Sometimes a designed handoff can work just as well as the zone read, although it's rarely as explosive. But it can be a nice change of pace when reading the defensive line isn't working as well.


Here's one little fun wrinkle: The horn play, which utilizes man blocking principles and a couple of pulling lineman, but also working to seal off the edge of overzealous defense and give the running back the edge.

The Passing Game: Play Action & Four Verticals

Nevada is not a huge passing team, but they've been working toward a greater balance (last year it was about a two to one ratio in favor of the rush, whereas this year it's close to one to one).

Wolf Pack play action comes out of the zone read on occasion, but usually on the designed handoff so the quarterback doesn't have to risk getting pounded out of the backfield. This is a lot quicker than the traditional under center quarterback, who has to go back into his five step drop, fake the handoff, then look to throw. With the Pistol the play action is almost instantaneous, making it difficult for cornerbacks to get a read on the throw if it comes out quick. It can be a good five to six yard pickup if a defense is focusing in on the run and playing zone coverage outside. Tight end Virgil Green seems to be Kapernick's most popular target.

I wish I could say more about Nevada's passing attack, but their attack seems to be mostly vertical. All the available wideouts run straight down the field and mostly stop at designated locations. Here's an example of play action.

play action bootleg (via smartfootballchris)

Coming tomorrow: How Cal's defense can try and stop Nevada's offense.

Additional Reading

There are a lot of great posts on the Internet on the Pistol offense and I recommend them all.

Smart Football's breakdown of the Pistol at Doc Saturday is all you need if you want a simpler explanation. More on the horn play.

Bruins Nation did some good breakdown of reads and looks in the Pistol offense in preparation.

Awesome stuff from American Football Monthly.

A good history of the Pistol Formation from Shaking the Southland.

Thanks to Kodiak for sending me the Nevada-Colorado State clips.