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Syracuse football: Let’s use the pistol formation more

Against tougher defenses, another weapon in the toolbox is never a bad idea

NCAA Football: Virginia at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange are a very different looking team than the past couple of seasons, evident by the 5-0 record they have entering Saturday’s contest against NC State. A big part of that change is the revamped offensive looks Robert Anae brought with him from Virginia. The usage of pre-snap motion and a variety of different concepts to take advantage of Garrett Shrader’s skills have completely flipped the script from the past two seasons.

However, the offense has not always performed at 100% efficiency. Against better defenses in Purdue and Virginia (side note: hands up if you thought preseason Virginia’s defense would be better than Louisville’s) the Orange were prone to stall out with quick drives. Part of that reason is that Sean Tucker hasn’t found the same success that he regularly did last season, although that’s not his fault.

The offensive line has regressed from last season, most notably in run blocking. The guys up front against the more physical fronts have bullied the Orange OL, forcing first contact with Tucker to come sooner and harder. That led to sub-100 rush yard games against the Boilermakers and the Cavaliers.

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Not every defense that Syracuse’s faces from here on is as weak as Louisville’s, UConn’s and Wagner’s. The brunt of the upcoming Orange schedule features some of the most fearsome, physical and highly touted defensive lines among all of college football, let alone the ACC.

Syracuse isn’t going to get away with having Shrader throw his way to a victory every game, so what can the Orange do to prevent the offense from going stale? Well, last week a clip from NFL Live went viral which got me thinking.

Now the primary basis of the conversation doesn’t apply too much to college football, especially Syracuse. The Orange only line up under center on goal-to-go or 3rd/4th down and short scenarios. However, Robert Griffin III’s comment to the segment is what perked my brain.

At the end of the day, the main topic of this entire discussion is deception. You want to reveal as late as possible if you are going with a run or pass play, for reasons pointed out by Ryan Clark and Marcus Spears. The best way to do that is with play action, and the typical shotgun formation makes play action less effective as the defense can see the ball for longer.

With how fast better opposing defenses are collapsing on Tucker, any edge that Syracuse can give him counts. RGIII’s comment about the effectiveness for him and Washington in 2012 with the pistol could help give Tucker a bit more time. His running style is one-cut and go. Having more time to read which cut to make in the pistol is just one of the advantages that the Orange could get.

Of course, the other option is play action. Syracuse has run the pistol formation a couple of times this season, so it’s not a foreign concept for Shrader to hand off or hide the ball when backtracking. Plus, the time Tucker gets to cut is time that Shrader gets in the pocket to make his reads, which he has been slow to go through at times.

Wagner v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

But with a talented running back like Tucker, the Orange can use the pistol to create a more effective play action that defenses have to respect, which helps Syracuse on both sides of the ball. Tucker theoretically gets more time to read which hole to cut through and Shrader gets more time to decide who to throw to.

Syracuse has run a lot of the typical shotgun formation this season, but the pistol is and should be an option to keep defenses on their toes. The pre-snap motion already has some defenses confused, and adding more deception with play action in the pistol can force opponents to think and make mistakes.