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Nevada Football: The Pistol Master

Chris Ault's innovative offense put Nevada on the map.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick. Virgil Green. Rishard Matthews. Duke Williams.

These players are playing in the NFL, and also benefitted from playing in Nevada coach Chris Ault's offensive system.

And that system involved the Pistol formation.

Ault, who had developed the offense in 2005, was an offensive guru who had spent most of his career at the University of Nevada, first as a player from 1965-68, then became one of the youngest coaches in college football, when in 1976, he came the head coach of the Wolf Pack at the age of 29.

Colin Kaepernick thrived in the Pistol offense. (Courtesy of

Colin Kaepernick thrived in the Pistol offense. (Courtesy of Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

From 1976 to 2012, Ault only had two losing seasons at Nevada (well one if you count a bowl loss to New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl in 2007), and had 4 seasons of 10 wins or better. He took the Pack to the 1990 NCAA Division I-AA Championship, where they lost to Georgia Southern. Despite the loss, Ault established himself as one of the bright offensive minds in college football.

Chris Ault's Career at Nevada
Year Overall Record Conference Conf. Finish Bowl/Playoffs Coaches Poll Rank AP Rank
1976 8-3 Div. II Independent - - - -
1977 8-3 Div. II Independent - - - -
1978 11-1 Div. I-AA Independent - Lost-Division I-AA Semifinal - -
1979 8-4 Big Sky Conference 2nd Lost-Division I-AA Semifinal - -
1980 6-4-1 Big Sky Conference Tied-2nd - - -
1981 7-4 Big Sky Conference Tied-4th - - -
1982 6-5 Big Sky Conference Tied-5th - - -
1983 9-5 Big Sky Conference 1st Lost-Division I-AA Semifinal - -
1984 7-4 Big Sky Conference 2nd - - -
1985 11-2 Big Sky Conference 2nd Lost-Division I-AA Semifinal - -
1986 13-1 Big Sky Conference 1st Lost-Division I-AA Semifinal - -
1987 5-6 Big Sky Conference Tied-4th - - -
1988 7-4 Big Sky Conference Tied-4th - - -
1989 7-4 Big Sky Conference Tied-3rd - - -
1990 13-2 Big Sky Conference 1st Lost-Division I-AA Championship - -
1991 12-1 Big Sky Conference 1st Lost-Division I-AA Quarterfinal - -
1992 7-5 Big West Conference 1st Lost-Las Vegas Bowl - -
1994 6-1 Big West Conference Tied-1st - - -
1995 9-3 Big West Conference 1st Lost-Las Vegas Bowl - -
2004 5-7 Western Athletic Conference Tied-6th - - -
2005 9-3 Western Athletic Conference Tied-1st Won-Hawaii Bowl
2006 8-5 Western Athletic Conference Tied-3rd Lost-MPC Computers Bowl - -
2007 6-7 Western Athletic Conference Tied-4th Lost-New Mexico Bowl - -
2008 7-6 Western Athletic Conference Tied-2nd Lost-Humanitarian Bowl - -
2009 8-5 Western Athletic Conference 2nd Lost-Hawaii Bowl - -
2010 13-1 Western Athletic Conference Tied-1st Won-Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl - -
2011 7-6 Western Athletic Conference Tied-2nd Lost-Hawaii Bowl - -
2012 7-6 Mountain West 5th Lost-New Mexico Bowl - -
Totals 233-109-1 4 Conferences and Independent Won 2 Bowl Games ****(Ault took a one year hiatus in 1993, and also a eight year leave in 1996)*****

When he returned to coach in 2004, he had suddenly realized that Nevada's offense needed to change. So, he developed a new offensive strategy called the "Pistol", where the quarterback would line up 3-4 yards behind the center. Also the running back would be in the back of the quarterback, while your receivers would be on both sides, basically acting as extra offensive guards. It kind of looks like a modified version of the Shotgun formation, but the quarterback is a little bit closer to the line of scrimmage. In the Pistol, it allows your running backs or your quarterback to gain major rushing yardage, but it can help the passing game as well. The quarterback has a better view of what the defenses are doing, and it also lets them have a better view of a passing play.

In an interview with the Nevada Sagebrush last month, Ault explained why he created the Pistol.

"The main reason I created the pistol is to be able to run the ball downhill and have the running back running north and south rather than east and west," Ault said. "I wanted to keep the features of the one-back offense that were so good for us because we were such a potent offense. I never wanted to move the running back, and I had him seven yards from the ball and two and a half yards behind the quarterback."

When Ault first implemented the offense, some players weren't so sure, including QB Jeff Rowe, who told Rivals.com that when he first saw it, he thought it was not going to work.

"He wanted to see if the center could make the snap, and the ball kept getting snapped over my head," Rowe says. "I was thinking, 'We're never going to get the snap.' "

Although the style was unorthodox, it worked. Nevada experienced a 4 game improvement from 2004, going 9-3 in 2005 and winning a share of the WAC Championship. Rowe had pretty nice stats, throwing for 21 TD's and 2,925 yards in 2005 and 17 touchdowns and 1,907 yards in 2006. The rushing game was excellent too. B.J. Mitchell ran for 1,399 yards and 12 touchdowns, Robert Hubbard ran for 719 yards and 11 scores, and Rowe himself rushed for 244 yards and 6 touchdowns. It was an exciting time for Nevada football, and pretty soon a lot of colleges around the country were using their version of the Pistol offense.

While at Nevada, Jeff Rowe threw for some pretty impressive numbers. (Courtesy of Harry How/Getty Images)

While at Nevada, Jeff Rowe threw for some pretty impressive numbers. (Courtesy of Harry How/Getty Images)

There was no better example of how the Pistol offense worked than the 2009 Nevada season, when Colin Kaepernick, Luke Lippincott and Vai Taua each rushed for 1,000 yards.

Taua explained at the time how much the Pistol helped the running game.

"The holes that our offensive line started opening up were ridiculous, and three backs over 1,000 yards proves it," Taua said. "Because of that, it’s not just one guy who can do it, all three of us can. ... And when you look over to the side and there’s a guy that can do just as good if not better than you waiting, it makes you feel a lot better and helps the team out a lot."

It was an amazing accomplishment. And it wasn't the only time Nevada had multiple 1,000 yard rushers. In 2008, Taua ran for 1,521 yards and Kaepernick ran for 1,130. As soon as Nevada's offense exploded, prominent NCAA schools began to notice. Big time programs like Florida, Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU and Texas Tech have used some or all parts of the Pistol.

In 2010, Nevada had perhaps their biggest season in school history when they went 13-1 and won a share of the WAC Championship. Their biggest game of the season was against Boise State, who many thought might have had a shot at the National Championship. Boise was winning at halftime 24-17, when out of nowhere, Colin Kaepernick used the Pistol to his advantage, running through Boise State's defense with ease. Nevada went on a 14-7 run to take the game into overtime. After Boise kicker Kyle Brotzman missed 2 field goal attempts, it was up to Anthony Martinez and the Wolf Pack to seal the deal.

It was the kick heard around the WAC, and was Nevada's biggest win in school history.

When Ault retired as Wolf Pack coach in 2012, he wasn't out of a gig for long. He was hired as a consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. His role was to educate Chiefs coach Andy Reid on the Pistol offense. Ault stepped down from his position from the Chiefs in May to take on the role as head coach of Rhinos Milano of the Italian Football League.

Last month, Ault talked to Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal about his new challenge.

"I started looking up European football and it was unbelievable," Ault said. "They have a passion for American football all throughout Europe and they’re trying to create it for their own citizens to learn the game and bring it to a higher level every year and make it a big part of their culture."

In 1998, Ault was named Nevada's Football Coach of the Century. In 2002, he experienced the greatest compliment a college coach or player can receive: induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

From his humble beginnings at Nevada to now taking his Pistol offense international, Chris Ault has contributed a lot to not just college football, but the game as a whole. Huge programs are now using the Pistol, as are some NFL teams. It's an unbelievable compliment to the man who meant so much to the Nevada program, and Northern Nevada for so long.

Ault's impact is still being felt at Nevada, where the school is still using the Pistol. As a matter of fact, it has helped their running game immensely this year, as backs Don Jackson and James Butler have rushed for more than 560 yards, and are on pace to nab a 1,000 yards or better this season.

From his humble beginnings at Nevada to now taking his Pistol offense international, Chris Ault has contributed a lot to not just college football, but the game as a whole. Huge programs are now using the Pistol, as are some NFL teams. It's an unbelievable compliment to the man who meant so much to the Nevada program, and Northern Nevada for so long.