Chris Ault isn’t going to the Super Bowl.
But his offense sure is.
Ault coached his final game for Nevada on December 15. The thrilling New Mexico Bowl ended with his Wolf Pack defense allowing two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds of a 49-48 loss to Arizona.
But his offense? Unstoppable. As usual. 659 yards, including 403 rushing. 39 first downs. 39 minutes of possession.
And it’s Ault’s offense, known as the “pistol,” that the 49ers will use at times in the Super Bowl.
Ault, 66, spent 28 years as Nevada’s head coach. Coming off a 5-7 season in 2004, he was looking for a way to spice things up. He spent three months immersed in film study. One innovative system that caught his eye: the fast-paced shotgun offense being run at New Hampshire by a fellow named Chip Kelly.
Ault liked the shotgun formation, but grew up running the old wing-T. He wanted to sustain a power running game out of the shotgun formation. He finally devised a set-up where the quarterback lined up only four yards behind the center, closer than in the shotgun. This enabled Ault to line the running back up right behind the quarterback, rather than off to one side.
The beauty of the new formation became evident immediately. “When that back sits behind the quarterback,” Ault said on the NFL Network last week, “the linebackers do not have a clear view of what he’s doing. You can run downhill power games, counters, gaps, and all that from the pistol.”
Ault’s offense had only five basic plays. But each one came with myriad variations and options. More than enough to keep defenses constantly befuddled.
“I just loved it,” Ault told Kent Babb of the Washington Post, “because there are so many things you can do.”
In its first year running the pistol, Nevada improved to 9-3, averaged 449 yards per game, and got Ault named WAC coach of the year.
The following February, Ault signed a kid named Colin Kaepernick to a scholarship. It would prove to be the perfect union of artist and medium, though Ault didn’t know it at the time.
“Just an OK athlete,” he told Babb. “Nothing there told me, ‘Man, this guy is our future!’”
Kaepernick redshirted in 2006, and then got his chance in 2007, when the starting quarterback was injured. Familiar scenario?
Just as he did last fall in San Francisco, Kaepernick took advantage of the opportunity. In his very first game as a starter, the Wolf Pack amassed 702 yards of offense. In 2009, Nevada became the first school to have three 1,000-yard rushers. By the time Kaepernick finished his career in 2010, he had become the first player in Division I history to pass for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in his career.
The ridiculous numbers posted by Ault’s pistol offense attracted attention from all over the country. LSU even ran the pistol when it won the 2007 national championship.
One coach who came to Nevada to study the offense was Greg Roman. At the time, Roman was the offensive coordinator at Stanford, under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Intrigued, Harbaugh, the newly named head coach of the 49ers, attended Nevada’s Pro Day in 2011, and personally put Kaepernick through drills. The Niners wound up selecting him in the second round of the draft.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. There’s Kaepernick, lined up in the pistol against the Green Bay Packers. There’s Kaepernick, faking a handoff, keeping the ball and sprinting around the end, outrunning the defense, untouched, 56 yards into the end zone.
In his living room in Nevada, Chris Ault grinned. He recognized the play.
“That’s Samurai,” he told Greg Bishop of The New York Times. “I can’t tell you how many touchdowns we scored with Samurai. Too many to count. People called me all week. ‘Coach, remember when he did that against Fresno?’”
Success breeds imitation in the NFL. Already, the Redskins and Seahawks are running the pistol. The Niners’ Super Bowl appearance may usher in the NFL’s next offensive craze. Ault certainly thinks so.
“The Pistol is here to stay,” he told Bishop. “It’s not like the wishbone. You’ll still have guys like Andrew Luck who can drop back, throw the thing, sit in the pocket. But I’m going to tell you, he could run the pistol. He’d be great in the pistol. So would Aaron Rodgers.”
Kaepernick isn’t too bad, either. “Every time he touched the ball, whether he gained yardage or not, you could just feel the electricity,” Ault told Bishop. “Especially when we called Samurai. When he got outside the tackle, with those long, loping legs of his, well, they haven’t caught him yet.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His columns appear on Thursday.