Could the ‘Pistol’ Save Ohio State from Itself?
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a blank look on Braxton Miller’s face following Ohio State’s 10-7 loss to Michigan State.
The Buckeyes had just dropped a very winnable game in their own stadium to open Big Ten play and it was all because of the offense.
No one was pointing fingers at Miller, obviously, as the freshman quarterback was making just the second start of his young career, but it was one of the most abysmal offensive performances by an Ohio State team in recent history.
Facing an aggressive Spartans defense, the Buckeyes managed just 178 yards of total offense, and nearly half of them came in the fourth quarter when they needed two scores against a clock that would only allow for one.
Miller was 5-of-10 for 56 yards with an interception that was ripped out of the hands of freshman wideout Devin Smith. It was hardly Miller’s worst performance, but he got absolutely no help from the running game.
With Boom Herron still serving his suspension, the OSU offense totaled 35 yards rushing on 39 carries. They averaged less than a yard per carry after factoring in sacks and that included a 13-yard run by backup quarterback Joe Bauserman.
Something had to change.
The Spartans and former OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio looked like they knew not only what play Ohio State was going to run, but exactly when they were going to run it.
The 2011 season was a crossroads and the Buckeyes desperately reached for a handgun to put them out of their misery.
What they found was a pistol.
The ‘Pistol’ formation isn’t new to college football, but it was to the Buckeyes when they faced LSU in the 2008 BCS National Championship game. The Tigers didn’t use it much in their win over Ohio State, but it was enough for Jim Tressel and his staff to take notice.
They visited a number of schools during the off-season and by fall camp there was already talk about the Buckeyes running some Pistol looks during the 2008 season. It didn’t make much sense with Todd Boeckman under center, but Ohio State would revisit that idea later when Terrelle Pryor took over as the team’s quarterback.
The Buckeyes tried to run some Pistol in 2009 to accommodate Pryor’s unique athleticism, but it takes time to perfect. Because the quarterback is standing four yards behind the center instead of six or seven, they have to adjust to a more delicate snap.
“It is shorter. You just have to take a little off it I’d say,” OSU’s All-American center Michael Brewster said.
“It’s not that much of a difference. It was a little weird at first.”
University of Nevada Head Coach Chris Ault developed the pistol offense back in 2004 as a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and single back offenses. It is designed to add a power running game to the more finesse shotgun spread look that many teams, including Ohio State, have incorporated into their offense.
“You still have a shotgun, but also an iso, a downhill threat of a tailback whose shoulders are square,” said OSU tight ends coach John Peterson, who also helps with the offensive line.
“He’s coming downhill at a defense as opposed to being side by side in the shotgun and going lateral then down.”
It also keeps the running back hidden behind the quarterback so that opposing linebackers have trouble seeing his initial steps.
“When you offset a tailback to one side, defenses tend to have their scouting reports that you only do this out of this set and this set,” Peterson said.
“If he’s right behind him, he can go either way. That’s one of the thoughts behind the Pistol.”
And one of the reasons the Buckeyes decided to implement it after the loss to Michigan State. Ohio State’s offense had become too predictable (even for them). When they lined up in the traditional shotgun, with a running back flanking Miller in the backfield, they weren’t doing enough to keep defenses honest.
“That hip alignment is a small but useful clue for the defense,” Ault told the Omaha World Herald in the spring when Nebraska was starting to add the Pistol to their arsenal.
“Defenses aren't able to scheme as much when the running back is directly behind the quarterback.”
Spread-option teams such as Oregon, Navy, Michigan and Florida use play-fakes, counter actions and multiple-back formations to hide the direction of their plays. They keep defenses honest using misdirection and it stops linebackers from cheating before the snap.
Ohio State has never been good at any of that, at least not since Tressel took over the program in 2001. They tried to run a zone-read offense out of the shotgun with Pryor, but even that never worked the way it should have considering how dangerous Pryor was with the ball in his hands.
Trying Something New
The Buckeyes seem to have always struggled internally about their offensive identity. Because Tressel continually built his system around the players instead of finding players to fit the system, this team has constantly had to change its philosophy when a new crop of players moves into the lineup.
Their one staple has always been running the football, especially out of the I-formation. Even that has led to antiquated predictability that often prevents the Buckeyes from being able to close out games by simply running the football.
“The Pistol makes defenses play honest football,” said former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, one of the true masters of the system.
“You can't do things to the Pistol that you can do to other offenses.”
Much like the old wishbone and veer offenses of the 1970s, the Pistol's running game moves a lot quicker than some of Ohio State’s other running plays, most famously the ‘Dave’ play.
In the Pistol, the snap is in the quarterback’s hands in a half-second, and the running back is already moving towards the line of scrimmage. It also allows Ohio State’s offensive line to stay in an aggressive mentality, which suits them much better.
Instead of alternating between power blocking—meant to get defenders out of the way—and “influence” blocking used in most zone-read offenses—designed to push defenders towards the intended direction of the play—they can just line up and play.
“We ran some pistol last year. I like pistol,” Brewster said.
“When I hear pistol now, I don’t think it will be any different.”
Building Around Braxton
Another reason the Buckeyes have started dabbling with the Pistol again this year is Braxton Miller’s familiarity with the shotgun.
“I don’t know if it’s the Pistol per se or the number of reps at gun,” Peterson said.
“If you look at his high school career he took most of his reps in the shotgun. The Pistol allows an offense to balance out your shotgun.”
Against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes ran 23 plays out of the normal shotgun formation with an off-set back. That is the look they were in on Miller’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith in the final minute, but they were mostly ineffective out of it the rest of the game.
They ran the ball 15 of the 23 times they were in shotgun for a total of 44 yards—an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Compare that to their 22 runs out the Pistol, which went for 183 yards and a touchdown—an average of 8.3 yards per carry.
That final number was influenced by Miller’s 44 yard touchdown run, which came out of the Pistol, but the Buckeyes have also had some big runs out of Boom Herron when he’s been in the Pistol.
“You kind of see the whole field,” Herron said.
“You’ve got a fullback or a quarterback in front of you so you kind of just see the whole field.”
The Buckeyes have been using more of a “loaded” look out of their Pistol, with fullback Zach Boren standing beside Miller to create more I-formation type options. It allows them to use the Pistol without taking one of their more important players off the field.
“Zach’s a very diverse, adaptable player. He could go line up and play tight end or guard or wherever. He’s going to find something,” Peterson said of the junior.
“So whether we’re queen set or king set in I back, it’s the same thing for him. So he’s very comfortable in whichever set.”
But are the Buckeyes comfortable? They didn’t use nearly as much Pistol against Indiana Saturday, although it did make an appearance in the second half.
“We’re taking a little break from it, I guess,” Boren said.
“As an offense you can't keep doing the same things out of the same formations, so you have to mix it up.”
That will continue to be the key for the Buckeyes, as long as they don’t mix themselves up in the process.
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