Fire Up: ‘Cats & Cornhuskers Share Pistol Philosophy

Nebraska week rolls on here at LTP.  Not many have pointed to the Nebraska and Northwestern sharing the same spread offense, now both containing an element of the pistol.  No one quite runs it like Husker QB Taylor Martinez. I thought it made sense to bring in the consumate football X and O blog, Smart Football to help us understand exactly what this all means.  Let’s welcome Chris to LTP and dive in to get better educated:

LTP: Thanks for joining us, Chris.  Northwestern has added the pistol as a wrinkle in to this year’s spread offense. While most readers understand the top-level of the concept of the pistol, we’re hoping you can make us quick studies on the topic. Walk us through the basic formation difference between the pistol and a traditional spread formation.

SF:  There’s actually surprisingly little difference between the “pistol” and a traditional spread formation. Imagine a set with four wide receivers, one running back and the quarterback in the shotgun. In the “traditional” spread, the running back aligns to the side of the quarterback, his depth depending on the play called. In the pistol, the running back slides to align behind the quarterback who is in the shotgun. That’s it: one guy moves a couple of feet. The name “pistol” came about from Nevada coach Chris Ault who made the shotgun a bit shorter than your normal spread shotgun, more like three to four yards rather than five to six. Hence, the name: a shorter shotgun so, “pistol.”

Although there really is very little difference between a “pistol” formation and other shotgun formations, it does give the offense a few more options. Moreover, what Nevada runs under Chris Ault is as close as what can be called a “Pistol Offense,” but that’s because they’ve engineered their entire offense around it and run a specific batch of plays; just lining up in the pistol is not the “Pistol Offense.”

For example, both Alabama and Oregon use the “pistol” set with some regularity. Before the 2009 BCS title game, a Sports Illustrated reporter, no doubt trying to show off their strategic chops, asked Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain why he had been using less pistol in the final few weeks of the regular season. His response? “I don’t know. I guess I got bored with it.” That’s not the hallmark of a seismic strategic shift. And Oregon under Chip Kelly doesn’t run Nevada’s offense, though they use the pistol — along with a bunch of other backfield motions. Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN tried to label Oregon a “pistol offense,” forgetting that what Chip Kelly’s strategy really is is to keep his running back moving around in the backfield. This is because the alignment of a running back in the backfield in the shotgun to one side or the other does give away some clues: typically, if a runner lines up to the quarterback’s right his path will take him in front of the quarterback to the left, while the quarterback reads some defender to his right. So Kelly often motions the running back from one side to the other and back. Note that the pistol is not necessarily a solution, as some plays work better when not run from the pistol.

LTP: What is the alleged advantage to the pistol over other formations? Can you be specific of particular areas of strength and/or weakness?

SF: The primary advantage is that the running back, by aligning behind the quarterback, gives no specific key or tip-off to the defense. As I mentioned above, the alignment of the running back can have some indication of where the play might go, and this can give the defense an advantage. The second advantage — and the one that differentiates it from both the normal shotgun and a traditional under center set — is that the offense can combine “downhill” running with read plays. Most shotgun runs require some kind of lateral movement by the running back. There’s nothing wrong with this as, when combined with quarterback reads, the defense has to deal with potential run threats going in different directions. But if the offense wants to overload the playside of a defense as the old option teams did, you need a downhill element combined with a read, and the pistol allows for that. And, again, the defense doesn’t know pre-snap which direction this tactic will attack.

The Pistol Offense In Action courtesy of

Here is the Pistol “veer” in action by the masters, Nevada:

For more info, click here to a Dr. Saturday post deconstructing the Nevada pistol offense with Smart Football.

LTP: NU has faced teams that solely employ The Pistol, like Nevada, but I’m wondering if you can offer up some teams that currently use it as a wrinkle formation element like we will be doing?

SF: Alabama, Oregon, and Arkansas come immediately to mind. Garrick McGee, Arkansas’ offensive coordinator under Bobby Petrino, was of course a former offensive coordinator at Northwestern.

LTP: Do you see the hybrid of spread and Pistol as an emerging trend or are we not there yet to have enough teams doing so to even call it that?

SF: It’s clearly an emerging trend and it’s so simple that every shotgun team is probably using it now. The question is whether the “pistol offense” will take off. What Chris Ault at Nevada has done is impressive, but it’s also the culmination of a very long coaching career where he came from a traditional running background and found a way to make the shotgun stuff work for him. The actual plays they use are old plays, and anyone who wants to adopt the idea needs to (1) understand how they fit into their existing philosophy and (2) think hard about how they can make a “system” out of the approach. Last season a lot of teams went to the pistol as a gimmick or changeup with some success — like UCLA’s win over Texas — but those experiments ended up proving that the pistol is not magic. Remember, what team used the pistol more than any other in the Big 10 in 2010? Indiana — didn’t exactly change the world for them.

Further, a big weakness of the pistol can come in pass protection. One reason to go to the shotgun is to give the quarterback more time and to let his blockers quickly get in front of him. Depending on the blocking scheme, pistol formations can be vulnerable to blitzes up the middle because the runningback has so far to go — he has to step all the way around the quarterback and get in front of him to make a block. By contrast, a shotgun runningback only needs to slide over a foot or two.

LTP: This hybrid of spread and pistol presumably is challenging to prepare for on a play by play basis. Can you help us with some specifics on the defensive challenges?

SF: Again, it depends how it is used but the biggest challenges for a defense in defending the pistol are: (1) figuring out where the play is going, as the pistol eliminates defensive keys that they can read pre-snap, (2) dealing with increased ability for options and other read plays that aren’t present in a traditional spread set, like the veer plays Nevada has used, and (3) being able to handle both the spread offense stuff as well as traditional, downhill attacks, like downhill runs combined with true play-action (in the shotgun all play-action ends up looking like a quick draw fake). When combined correctly this is very difficult for the defense to handle. If it’s just used as a different wrinkle, then the offense still gains the advantage of #1 but not necessarily the other advantages; though adopting #2 and #3 could cut into practice time for the base offense. All in all,

LTP: In what down and distance situations would you envision NU going to The Pistol?

SF: To me, it’s a good middle distance tactic. Some First and 10s but most useful on, say, Second and Five or Third and Three — when the offense could pass, run, fake run and pass, run options, or reach into its bag of tricks to convert the down. Northwestern has some smart coaches and I trust that they will find clever ways to use the pistol. It isn’t magic however, just another useful weapon to fire at your opponent.

LTP: Thanks Chris. This is really helpful stuff and demystifies a lot of the “magic” element around “the pistol”.  We look forward to circling back to you once we see it in action.

Camp Kenosha Bits

The ‘Cats continue to get a ton of coverage this fall camp, the most I can remember since the 1996 and 1997 seasons.  The column space in the local papers is quite impressive and the television outlets are prominent as well.  Here are some links that are directly related to stories from practice:

  •’s Skip Myslenski goes pretty deep in to the “no-names” and gets to hear from the ‘Cats LBs and the chip on their shoulder for the unit that has most of us concerned, and media “experts” like’s Brian Bennett pegging them as 12th ranked out of the 12 Big Ten teams.
  • Al Netter, the Allstate PR scheme veiled as a sportsmanship award, has been getting plenty of love for his spring break treks to help a Guatamelan orphanage are getting the senior lineman a lot of credit that he should be getting. Check out the nasty player with the softer side here in yesterday’s Tribune.
  • Tina Akouris of the Sun-Times gets to know our new starting center, RS FR Brandon Vitabile a tad better with this article. Check it out here.
  • PersaStrong continues to roll, this time in Wildcat recruiting hotbed, central Florida.  The Orlando Sentinel went strong with the Dan Persa coverage here.
  • ‘Cat alum and Bears DE Corey Wootton received some tough news. Wootton will go under the knife for arthoscopic knee surgery and will miss four weeks.  Our best to C-dub on a speedy recovery.

LTP Purple Pledge Challenge

Congrats to Joe who added a +1 to the season ticket tally and slowly moved the needle on the LTP Purple Pledge Challenge to a totla of 106. This is a daily update on the LTP Purple Pledge Challenge for NEW season tickets in conjunction with Northwestern. LTP has told NU we can deliver 500 NEW season ticket holders by 8/31/11 as part of the new Northwestern season ticket referral program. The challenge is pretty simple. Get new season ticket holders to sign up (season tickets start as low as $116 for end zone or $100 for young alums and go up to $200 for sideline sections) and have them give your account executive’s name. Or, if you want, call your new season ticket holder and give him/her your season-ticket-holder to be’s information so it can be tracked. We as a community will be sharing a fantastic prize to celebrate our accomplishment (TBD soon) and you’ll be able to get individual prizes as well based on how many tickets you’ve referred. For a full list of complete details and tips on how to convert friends, please click here. Also, remember you can DONATE your season ticket or purchase one, give it to LTP and I’ll ensure it gets put to use by PURPLE people. If you’d like to donate a season ticket to NU, simply click here. If you want me to be your referral contact me at Remember the ticket office # is 888-GO-Purple (888-467-8775). Including our year-to-date LTP Purple Pledge (prior to 8/1) we have 106 season tickets and need 394 more in the next 15 days! Let’s get over the 200 mark this week.

  • Rossington

    Thanks, LTP, for bringing in Smart Football. Interesting insights into the Pistol philosophy and formation. I’d love to hear from someone on the defensive side of the ball discuss the merits of the 4-3 vs 3-4 and 3-5-5. Keep up the great work!

  • Wildcat86

    Not surprisingly, Bubba Starling is picking pro baseball over football at UNL.

  • LF Cat

    @ Rossington

    The merits of the 3-5-5 are self evident. :)

  • Mark

    @LTP and SF
    Great stuff – the general and the specific explained succinctly. Looks like Colter should be in running Pistol plays as a twist. I really didn’t understand this Pistol stuff at all but now have a clue. Thanks!

  • JRehm97

    I’m a fan of both NUs. I appreciate the informative article on the “The Pistol”. However scheme doesn’t matter for squat if you don’t have a good offensive line. Both NUs fall short in that department.

    I’m more impressed with Persa than Martinez. Martinez is fast, but Texas figured out that Martinez doesn’t read the option well. In other words, he decides in advance whether he will keep or hand off to the running back. I would assume he has worked on his option read in the off-season, but I doubt he will match the option skills of Eric Crouch or Tommie Frazier this season.

  • Mike

    Off topic… but NU announced court #1 for next year (i.e. not the purple court). Also, the design will be stained in (so you can see the wood grain) rather than painted on.

  • Wildcattack!

    I’m not too heartbroken that they decided not to go with the purple court, though I doubt this was a democratic decision. That said, I’m not a fan of the stain, it looks pretty underwhelming on the picture they put up on facebook.

  • AdamDG

    Miami looking at NCAA Death Penalty type allegations:

    Be thankful NU has such a clean reputation (let’s keep it that way).

  • NUUM

    Boy, the 3-5-5 defensive scheme sounds interesting. But how do you get the extra 2 players onto the field?

  • Sasser

    @ NUUM –

    You should ask Les Miles about that one.

  • Rossington

    @LF Cat and @NUUM, good catch on the 3-5-5, we could have used it last year against Wiscy and Illinois!

    I’d still be interested in having Smart Football or someone else with some insights on defense (maybe MR95Cat?) explain the pros and cons of the various base defenses, particularly in terms of what suits Northwestern’s personnel.