RENO - Chris Ault, not even a week past his 30th birthday and in just his first season as the Nevada Wolf Pack's head football coach, stared the run-and-shoot offense in its eye and refused to back down.
"They were the talk of football," said Ault recently, remembering the Wolf Pack's game on Nov. 13, 1976, against the Portland State Vikings and their revolutionary run-and-shoot offense with head coach Mouse Davis and quarterback June Jones. "Nobody had stopped it."
Davis and Jones' run-and-shoot, with its shotgun formation and four and five-wide receiver sets, took college football by storm in the mid-1970s. It was not unusual for the Division II Vikings to throw the ball 60 times a game.
It was enough to make a rookie head coach a little nervous.
"I remember the wind was blowing pretty hard that day at Mackay Stadium," Ault said. "I think it was 10-15 miles an hour. But we got after him and June had a rough day."
The Pack, which lost at Portland State (37-0) the year before when Davis was in his first year as head coach, beat Portland State, 35-22, on that blustery November day in 1976 before 6,500 fans at Mackay Stadium.
"I remember Mouse telling everyone after the game, 'Well, it was windy. It blew our game off. We couldn't do what we normally do,'" Ault remembered with a smile. "I couldn't believe he was saying those things. When I heard that I just said, "You know, the wind was blowing for both teams on both sides of the ball and on both sides of the field.'"
Fast forward more than three decades to today's (5 p.m., ESPN) Hawaii Bowl between the Wolf Pack (8-4) and the SMU Mustangs (7-5). Jones, now in his second year as SMU's head coach, will turn his run-and-shoot offense loose against the Pack. But this time the Pack will have a revolutionary, eye-opening offense of its own with Ault's six-year-old Pistol attack.
"It's going to be a shootout," Ault said, smiling. "You are going to see some offense."
The differences between the run-and-shoot and pistol are subtle. The run-and-shoot normally operates with four receivers (two out wide and two in the slot) and no tight end. The running back is positioned slightly ahead of the quarterback, who takes the snap out of the shotgun. The Mustangs' depth chart lists an X, Y, Z and H receiver and no tight end or fullback.
The pistol -- so named because the quarterback stands in sort of a mini shotgun, a few yards closer to the center -- is an option-style offense with the running back positioned behind the quarterback. While the run-and-shoot quarterback must make the vast majority of his reads in the passing game after the ball is snapped (receivers run to open holes in the defense), the bulk of the pistol quarterback's reads are on the option, whether to pitch the ball to the back, keep it himself and run or pass it to a receiver, who is usually running a quick sideline route.
"I think we can do a lot more different things in the pistol," Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. "We're more versatile. We have more of a downhill running game."
"The pistol is more of a run-based offense," Wolf Pack running backs coach Jim Mastro said. "They don't have a tight end on the field. We have a tight end. But the principles of the passing game are basically the same."
The differences between the run-and-shoot and pistol have definitely been blurred this year by the Pack and Mustangs. The run-and-shoot running game, especially in the early years with Davis and Jones at Portland State, was always an afterthought. But Jones' Mustangs have been very efficient at running the ball. The Mustangs aren't in the same running neighborhood as the Pack (first in the nation at 362 yards a game), but they do keep defenses honest, rushing for 113 yards a game (100th best in the NCAA).
That's why the Pack can likely expect to see a watered down version of Jones' classic run-and-shoot. Much of the Jones' new-found emphasis on the running game is probably due to the fact that he doesn't yet have all the right pieces in place for his wide-open run-and-shoot attack at SMU. He had to change quarterbacks at mid-season this year (to red-shirt freshman Kyle Padron) and has had to rely on running back Shawnbrey McNeal (1,125 yards and nine touchdowns) to help smooth out the rough edges.
After a quick look at the Mustangs statistics this year you'd hardly recognize the run-and-shoot. The Mustangs' run-and-shoot, at least numbers-wise, hardly resembles the classic version that thrilled us in the 1970s with Jones and Davis at Portland State, in the 1980s with Jim Kelly's Houston Gamblers of the USFL, in the late 1980s and early 1990s with coach John Jenkins and the NCAA's Houston Cougars with quarterbacks Andre Ware and David Klingler or even the Warren Houston Oilers and Kelly's Buffalo Bills in the NFL in the 1990s.
Jones' Mustangs run a more West Coast version of the run-and-shoot, similar to the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and 1990s with quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young and running backs Roger Craig and Rickey Waters.
Jones, now in his 11th year as a head coach (the first nine at Hawaii), after all, never had a running back before this season rush for 1,000 yards or trusted a back to carry the ball more than 131 times (Hawaii's Nate Ilaoa in 2006) in a year. McNeal already has 224 carries this year. Ault, by comparison, had three players (Kaepernick, Vai Taua, Luke Lippincott) carry the ball more than 131 times this year alone and each surpassed 1,000 yards.
"They've advanced it," said Ault of the run-and-shoot. "They do a much better job of running the ball."
That's probably good news for the Pack defense, which is 26th in the nation against the rush and 119th (out of 120 teams) against the pass.
The Pack, though, did have some success against the run-and-shoot when Davis' new-fangled offense was in its infancy stages. Before Ault contained Jones and Davis in 1976, after all, Pack defensive back Greg Grouwinkel picked off a school-record four Portland State passes when Davis was the Vikings' offensive coordinator in 1974. But the Pack's success against the run-and-shoot in the 1970s turned into frustration by the time Jones perfected the offense as Hawaii's coach earlier this decade.
Jones' Hawaii teams were 5-3 against the Pack from 1999-2007 and averaged 34 points a game. In his last four games (three Hawaii victories) against the Pack, Jones used three different quarterbacks (Timmy Chang, Colt Brennan, Tyler Graunke) to pass for a combined 1,529 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Jones' offense on Thursday, despite the presence of McNeal, will still be more shoot than run. SMU has passed the ball 431 times for 3,206 yards and 20 touchdowns and has run it 354 times for 1,353 yards and 19 scores. The Pack, by comparison, has run it 573 times for 4,347 yards and 48 touchdowns while throwing it just 264 times for 1,912 yards and 20 scores.
But the Pack's statistics this year might be as skewed as SMU's numbers. The true Pistol attack, after all, is not designed to be as run-heavy as it has been this year. Ault would much prefer a more balanced attack like last year when the Pack ran it 593 times and passed it 418 times.
The Pack might throw the ball in the Hawaii Bowl more than we've seen lately especially considering that Taua (academically ineligible) and Lippincott (toe injury) will both miss the game.
"We've just run the ball so well this year," said Kaepernick, who has not thrown more than 24 passes in a game over his last nine games. "So when something is working so well, why change it?"
Kaepernick has attempted 130 fewer passes and has passed for 974 fewer yards this year with one game to play than he did a year ago. "Whatever the team needs me to do to win a game, I'm happy with that," Kaepernick said. "I'll throw it 50 times or I'll run it 50 times."
Both defenses might have to expect just about anything on Thursday. The pistol and run-and-shoot, after all, will be on a national stage with two old gunslingers going against each other one more time.
"It's going to be a special game," Ault said.