ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On Dec. 22, 2007, the New Mexico Lobos stuck a big lump of coal in Colin Kaepernick’s Christmas stocking.
They turned Nevada coach Chris Ault’s pistol offense into a popgun. They read Wolf Pack quarterback Kaepernick and his zone read option play as they might have a billboard with great, big letters, reading: “Stop Me.”
New Mexico won the second annual New Mexico Bowl on that chilly Albuquerque afternoon, 23-0.
Today, more than five years later, Kaepernick, the pistol and the zone read constitute perhaps the third biggest story related to Super Bowl XLVII — surpassed only by the Harbaugh brothers and deer antler spray.
Since “Kap” (or, if you prefer, “Kaep”) replaced Alex Smith as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback, he’s been running like a madman out of the pistol. In the Niners’ NFC playoff game against Green Bay, he set an NFL record for quarterbacks with 181 yards rushing. Most of that yardage came off the zone read.
How mystified, how bamboozled were the Packers? Of Kaepernick’s 181 yards, 178 came before he was so much as touched by a Green Bay defender.
As for that 2007 New Mexico Bowl, wow — what a contrast. Kaepernick’s totals: 12 carries for a net 26 yards; 13-of-31 passing for 137; three sacks.
It’s fair to note that Kaepernick was a mere freshman at the time for a team that finished 6-7, and that the straw that stirred the Wolf Pack’s drink that season was running back Luke Lippincott. He rushed 10 times for 40 yards that day. Nevada ran 61 offensive plays, averaged 3.4 yards per play and converted on only three of 14 third-down situations.
The pistol and the zone read were stuffed, bottled up, shut down.
Tyler Donaldson might like to say he remembers it well, but he doesn’t.
“That was a long time ago,” he says, laughing.
Donaldson, now the defensive line coach at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., was a starting defensive end for the Lobos (9-4) that afternoon. He played a major role in dismantling the Nevada offense, tying cornerback Glover Quin for team-high honors with six tackles.
He also was, at times, the guy Kaepernick was trying to read before opting to keep the ball or hand off to Lippincott. He might as well have been reading “War and Peace” in the original Russian.
After the game, then-Lobos coach Rocky Long said there was nothing special about UNM’s defensive game plan. There probably was, but coaches rarely reveal such things in detail — suspecting those strategies might have to be used again.
Donaldson, as well, has no X’s and O’s to offer. But he does say option is option, whether it’s the zone read or the veer. The more a defense plays and practices against the option, the better it gets at combating it.
“It ended up just really being option football, and we saw a lot of that from Air Force,” Donaldson says. “And it was a bowl game, so we had a lot of time to prepare for it.
“But it just winds up being assignment football, overall.”
Air Force, under then-coach Fisher DeBerry, ran mostly triple option with the quarterback under center. But Donaldson and the Lobos had also seen read option out of the shotgun from Utah.
In the shotgun, the quarterback lines up some 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage with a running back to his left or right.
In the pistol, as developed by Ault at Nevada, the quarterback lines up 4 yards behind the center with the running back another 3 yards back — directly behind the quarterback.
The big advantage to the pistol, Donaldson says, is that the defense has no pre-snap indication of whether the play is going to the left or the right.
Since that long-ago day in Albuquerque, few if any defenses have stuffed Kaepernick and the pistol the way New Mexico did. He left Nevada having passed for more than 10,000 yards, rushed for more than 4,000, and accounted for 142 touchdowns. He even caught a TD pass.
He has been similarly unstoppable since taking over at QB for the 49ers after Smith suffered a concussion in Week 10.
The pistol and the zone read are relatively new to NFL defenses, and Donaldson believes those defenses will gradually start to catch up. Will that process begin today with the Baltimore Ravens? We’ll see, though the extra week of preparation afforded by the Super Bowl can’t hurt.
The problem is — as Donaldson, a defensive coach, knows all too well — that as defenses adjust, so do the offenses.
Nowadays, he says, quarterbacks aren’t just reading the defensive player on the end of the line of scrimmage.
“It’s gotten so advanced,” he says. “It’s come to the point where they can read a three technique (a defensive lineman lined up on the outside shoulder of an offensive guard). They can read a linebacker and have everybody blocked (as opposed to leaving an edge defender unblocked).”
With all that, Donaldson says, football ultimately comes down to personnel — “players making plays,” as Long used to say ad infinitum. Back on Dec. 22, 2007, the Lobos simply were the better, tougher, stronger football team.
Today, chances are, the better, tougher, stronger football team will win — pistol or no pistol.
Pistol or no pistol, the guess here is that’s the 49ers.
San Francisco 31, Baltimore 24.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal