The stage is set for the final regular season football games of the year, and one of the best will be in Reno, Nevada, where the homestanding Wolf Pack will host Boise State. Nevada coach Chris Ault has revitalized his team and his career in recent years with Ault's groundbreaking "pistol" offense.
There are two main keys to stopping the pistol offense in general and in stopping this year's Nevada offense that I will focus on.
#1: Stefphon Jefferson, running back
Jefferson has, to this point in the season, been unstoppable. He's done far better this season (142 yards per game) than Boise State's top rusher, D.J. Harper (85 yards per game). If the Bronco defense wants to clue in on how good Jefferson is, he's better than Le'Veon Bell, whom Boise State could not stop en route to a season-opening loss vs. the six-loss Michigan State team. Jefferson is #2 in the nation in rushing, ahead of Bell, who is #3. You can bet Jefferson has the personal goal of finishing the season as the leading rusher in all of college football, and he'll look to do that against the Boise State defense.
#2: Cody Fajardo, quarterback
One of the main reasons Boise State couldn't beat Nevada the last time these two played in Reno was that they couldn't stop quarterback Colin Kaepernick, especially on crucial downs. Other than the fact that Kaepernick will go down in history as one of the top dual threats in college football, the main reason they couldn't stop him is simple: they didn't play like they knew how to stop the option.
The best way to understand Nevada's pistol offense is to realize that it all centers on the moment of decision for the quarterback. Upon the snap, the quarterback will often stand sideways and the running back will come behind him as if to take the handoff. This is the be-all, end-all moment for the defense. The quarterback will either hand the ball off, in which case the running back generally takes the ball up the middle, or the quarterback will pull the ball back. At this point, the QB will either head to one side of the field, still with the option to pitch it to the running back, or he will step back and throw it.
This moment of decision for the quarterback is what makes it so tough to defend, because at that point, the defense has no clue what is to happen. The analysis below is based on that realization, and stresses the importance of being there at this moment of decision.
To be fair, very few college coaches have seen the option enough to know how to stop it, and fewer college football players have seen it. For the secret, you have to turn to old-timers who are very familiar with it. The #1 key to stopping the option is to tackle the quarterback. Two years ago, Boise State players ran downfield with Kaepernick, waiting for him to pitch the ball. Big mistake. Nope, when Fajardo rolls out to either the right or left, the Bronco outside linebacker meeting him has to nail him every single time. Not three yards downfield, but right there at the line of scrimmage. Every single time he rolls out, Fajardo should hit the turf. The other Bronco players on that side of the field (the middle linebacker, the cornerback and the safety) need to be converging on the outside, where the ball will likely be pitched to Jefferson, and make gang tackling on Jefferson the order of the day.
And, if Fajardo hands the ball to Jefferson, more often than not, he'll be headed up the middle into the teeth of the Bronco defense. To take the pressure off the middle linebacker already wary of outside pitches, it will be crucial for the Bronco linemen to fight off their blocks and make the play.
Nevada uses deception in the pistol as well as anyone, and the truth is that there is not time to react to the play once Fajardo either keeps it or hands it off. The only way to slow down the pistol is to be there at Fajardo's moment of decision to take him down.
Sound simple? Yes and no. If Boise State's defense executes the above, they will slow the pistol down. If not, and that Bronco meeting Fajardo at the line of scrimmage tries to play both Fajardo and Jefferson, it results in big yards every time for Nevada. Playing the option is not simple because the key defender tends to want to let his athletic skills come into play rather than doing his job.
Some defenses will instruct the outside linebacker to play the pitch man and force the quarterback to turn upfield, where hopefully defenders will be there. This works to some degree with varying success depending on the quality of the team running the option. The simple truth of the matter is that Nevada excels at the pistol, and their quarterbacks are better ball carriers than most. And generally, if you can force the quarterback to pitch, it takes him out of the play and makes the running game more one-dimensional. Plus, it allows the defense to use the sideline as another defender on the running back.
Many defenses will beef up their chances of stopping the option by placing eight or nine guys in the box in the area directly in front of the Nevada linemen near the line of scrimmage. This makes it difficult for the offense to block everyone, and someone will shoot through the nail the ball carrier. The pistol is designed to negate this strategy, as more receivers will line up on the outside, forcing the defensive backs to play outside rather than in the box.
This makes the play of the middle linebacker even more important, since most of the defensive backs are busy with their assignments of covering receivers and fighting off those blocks. It also highlights that outside linebacker who must tackle Fajardo every time he rolls out. If he can do that and take Fajardo out of the play at the line of scrimmage, and the middle linebacker comes over to make the stop on Jefferson, preferably with help from at least one of the defensive backs, the Broncos can take away the main strength of the pistol offense.
So too can the importance of the outside linebackers not be overstated. In the photo above, Fajardo is not looking at Jefferson, but rather at the outside linebacker and/or defensive end. If the 'backer is moving inside to stop the handoff, Fajardo has a pretty good idea he can beat him to the outside. So against the pistol, the outside linebackers have to stay home to thwart that threat.
Complicating matters considerably is the fact that Nevada runs the pistol at its most efficient--they invented it. Their players are well-schooled in executing the offense, and they run the option tremendously well. No one is going to completely stop the option. Boise State's goal is to hold rushes to no more than three or four yards, and to completely stop them on third down.
Fajardo is not one of the top passers, although at #39 he too ranks ahead of his Boise State counterpart (Joe Southwick at #45), he is probably on par with Kaepernick for most of his career. What makes the pistol effective is the ability of the quarterback to throw; just when you think you have the option stopped, Fajardo steps back and tosses it for a first down.
As for the Nevada defense, they will play their best game of the season tomorrow, not only because they are playing Boise State and will be fired up, but because they are playing Boise State. You see, Boise State's offense isn't up to par with past years, so even though the Wolf Pack defense isn't amongst the nation's leaders, they'll look like it because they'll be playing a less dangerous offense than others they've played this season. The crowd in Reno will be wild in anticipation of a second straight home win over the Broncos and will be pumping their defense up throughout.
This will be the last meeting in this great rivalry for at least a few years, as Boise State is headed for the Big East Conference, another reason Nevada will be fired up, as they want to send the Broncos packing with a loss. Hopefully, the teams can come to terms with an extended non-conference deal that can continue the rivalry.
The game will be televised live on ABC beginning at 1:30.