Two years ago, Clemson won 11 games, finished as a top 10 team, and went to the Orange Bowl, where they defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes. Atlantic Division runners up, they finished 7-1 in conference play with their only loss coming to the eventual national champion Florida State Seminoles.
That year, third year offensive coordinator Chad Morris ran a Spread scheme with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. After Boyd and Watkins departed, they began transitioning with new personnel to the Pistol offense, changing their formations ever so slightly thanks to the new personnel that they had.
In November, Morris left to take the head coaching vacancy at Southern Methodist, leaving the Tigers to fill his void with two members of the coaching staff - Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. This year, they retained Scott and Elliott and continued the construction of their Pistol style offense.
The spread is the offense of the day in college football. While the pistol is popular, it's not as prevalent as the fast-paced, high-powered offense. During an era when Boston College fans are looking at their offense and questioning personnel groupings and play calls, what can we learn from the switch and what are the differences and positives to moving away from the "it offense" of the day?
Let's start with the spread. It lines the quarterback up in shotgun formation with multiple receiver sets. The term "spread" comes from the way it spreads out the defensive backfield. If a defense counters four receivers with solely defensive backs and safeties, it leaves the deep center of the field open. If they counter with linebackers, it leaves the intermediate route open. If they counter with all defensive backs in a nickel or dime package, then the receivers are left essentially in man-to-man coverage.
The spread typically employs no-huddle to go faster. The offensive line uses space, allowing for quicker blocks, quicker routes, and vertical movement. It relies on speed, speed, and more speed.
The spread is often times confused with the Air Raid attack made famous by the high-scoring offenses of places like Texas Christian, Baylor, or Texas Tech. The Air Raid essentially abandons the run and goes as fast as possible, needing a quarterback to call the plays at the line of scrimmage. The spread, however, does utilize the running game, and is considerably slower by nature. "Spread" is only designed to create space. "Air Raid" takes that spread and moves it into an extreme.
As mentioned earlier, Clemson transitioned to the Pistol from the flat out spread offense. The Pistol brings the QB closer to the line of scrimmage than the shotgun spread, and it is a little bit more run heavy than the spread. The pistol is employed by teams with faster running backs, since they're trying to get the backs going with forward motion. The shotgun used by the spread forces running backs to take an extra second or two to get the ball and wait for the holes to develop within the blocking scheme. The pistol allows them to slip through smaller holes with more momentum, making it just as difficult to tackle.
The pistol is designed for more efficiency than it is speed. It's just as effective as the spread, which is the modern football version of the Loyola Marymount basketball offense known simply as The System. The pistol can also be used in variations of option offense, such as the one Boston College tried to work on with Darius Wade at quarterback in the first couple of weeks. It doesn't mean the offense isn't going to run more than pass, especially if the passer is as talented as Watson, but it takes the pressure of the run off the QB a little bit more than the spread does. It allows the passer, simply put, to be a more dedicated, better passer.
The pistol is a type of offense that relies on the sum of its parts. Its design, by nature, requires players recruited to play within its scheme. It requires a dual-threat QB who can make plays with his feet if the option play calls for it but is still talented enough to deliver a pass since its spread out enough to get receivers open. The line, when playing tight, opens up the outside lanes, but if they can't hold their blocks, they can pull and shift guys based on necessity.
If a defense is good, it shouldn't have to change too much out of its base. The pistol is still a type of spread offense, meaning there's a need for successful coverage. If BC is playing its base 4-3 defense, a linebacker or safety will need to play coverage in place of an extra defensive back. It also means the front four will need to get off their blocks to make plays more frequently, since the offense, by design, will allow for playmakers to make plays (which sounds redundant and is simply stating the obvious).
Clemson's offense has been very successful in transitioning from the spread to the pistol. When they ran strictly spread, they lacked the running back talent and needed to throw more frequently. It utilized the talents of Boyd and Watkins, opening the holes up for Boyd to either run upfield or for running back Roderick McDowell. Last year, with Deshaun Watson playing as a true freshman who lacked experience and, later, with Cole Stoudt, they relied more on the running back position.
In 2013, McDowell and Boyd combined for 343 rushing attempts, by far more than other backs but spread across two athletes. Last year, the quarterback position was used in the run that much less, allowing Wayne Gallman to remain as the single "running" back field position player. This year, Gallman has almost double the rushing attempts of Watson. Watson may be able to run, but with the pistol, the Tigers are less likely to have the QB take it himself and more likely to hand it off to their workhorse in the backfield - unless it's a pass play, which, because it's the spread, is still always a factor, sometimes moreso than the run.
Will BC be able to stop this defense? It's certainly going to be a great chess match and a battle worth watching as the Eagles head south to take on the Tigers in Death Valley.