I’ve seen a lot of discussion over the last few weeks about why the Oregon Ducks are not putting up the kind of rushing numbers this season that they traditionally have. The two areas that are super easy for fans to grab at are scheme and play calling. Any time the offense has a letdown in the scoring column, you’ll be sure to here about one of these two items.
Scheme issues are easy for a lot people to latch on to because it makes sense at a surface level, and it provides an ability to engage in conversation about what folks are noticing on a macro level. Play calling is even easier to blame because people now have the power of hindsight.
In our case, we’ve run a Shotgun formations for so long (wide the back in a sidecar look), that we’re finding it easy to chalk up the reduced rushing yardage to the Pistol formation. That’s fine, until you realize that neither the data nor the experience of other teams support that idea.
We know that Chris Ault installed the Pistol at Nevada to give his QB more room while keeping his preferred rushing attack. But because it also expanded what he could do in the run game, it took the team’s 154.1 ypg the year prior, to 199.5 ypg in 2005. This would keep growing to their most productive year, with Colin Kaepernick playing QB, when the team average 344.9 ypg. Chris Ault’s coaching career ended in 2012 with his run game garnering 271 ypg in the post-Kaepernick era.
Then there are the 2012 Clemson Tigers. Then-offensive coordinator Chad Morris was looking for a way to enhance his run game and took his staff to Nevada in the off-season. After implementing the Pistol, the Clemson offense had a slight increase in production from 158.5 ypg to 191.1 ypg. Those numbers would slightly drop again in 2013 when they started relying primarily on Shotgun formations. This is admittedly a weaker example, as Clemson was a much bigger passing threat in those years.
In 2013, now retired Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops was looking to shore up his run game. He brought in Coach Ault to put on a private clinic for his staff, and the Sooners went from 161.4 ypg in 2012 to 223.9 ypg in 2013, and 261.2 ypg in 2014. In 2014, the Sooners would stun the Alabama Crimson Tide, 45-31, in the Sugar Bowl.
This year, the Appalachian State Mountaineers were this close to knocking off the Penn State Nittany Lions, which would have left them undefeated on the season. They’re also the only other team I can think of, besides Oregon, whose offense is based around the Pistol formation. Further, they are reigning in 265 ypg in the rushing department. A cool little fact, though it doesn’t mean much, is that App State HC Scott Satterfield was Mario Cristobal’s offensive coordinator for two season at Florida International.
All of this is not to say that you cannot have a successful rushing attack from the Shotgun. The past decade and change of Oregon football renders that statement foolish. However, I do not believe that Oregon’s reduction in rushing yards so far in 2018 is due to the Pistol. The Pistol is actually something that can mask other deficiencies the Ducks have.
My thinking is simply that we have young and inexperienced running backs. There have been several times this season where I’ve said, “If CJ would have just followed his block there…” or “If the back just had a little more power to get through the arm tackle that tripped him up at the line.” There have been enough such instances this season to make me notice a difference from prior Oregon running backs.
Above is a clip of the RB vision I’m talking about. If CJ Verdell had just followed his center on this Horn play, he wouldn’t have run into the Mike LB, and that LB probably doesn’t catch him from behind. The center also could done a better job of recognizing and turning inside for the Mike, but still, there was room for an outside cut. Suddenly, that’s a big play, perhaps a touchdown. It’s simple things like this that stunt the rushing yardage.
During the game against the Washington State, the offensive line had an uncharacteristic performance. In the first half, penetration came easy for the Cougar defensive front. By the time the OL settled in, the Ducks were at a point where they had to lean on the passing game. While the absence of LT Penei Sewell is certainly a blow, last week’s performance is not something I see continuing.
My advice to fans? Be patient. These backs are going to become more experienced. They’re going to get bigger, they’re going to get stronger, and their vision is going to improve.
Would I have been okay if Oregon had stayed with the Shotgun? Yes, of course; they’ve had a ton of success with it. Was I also stoked when we all found out they were going to the Pistol? Yes, because I know what it’s capable of producing based on its relatively brief history. Such a level of production is certainly possible at a place like Oregon.
Coach Eric Boles
Top Photo Credit: Tom Corno
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