UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel decided to use the pistol offense in an effort to improve the Bruins' running game. UCLA has improved from ninth in the Pac-10 last season to fourth this year in rushing yards per game.

Washington’s game against UCLA at 5 p.m. Thursday could hinge largely on the answer to one question: Can the Huskies avoid being pistol-whipped?

UCLA is the first Pac-10 team to buy in fully to one of the newer offenses in college football, the “pistol.”

It’s an offshoot of the shotgun, with the quarterback lining up 3 to 4 yards behind the center rather than 5 or 6 as he would in the shotgun.

With the running back directly behind the quarterback, the offense can run either to the left or the right without giving it away. And with the quarterback being closer to the line, the offense can run more basic running plays that being farther away makes difficult.

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“That’s the beauty of the pistol,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.

The offense was originated by Nevada coach Chris Ault, whose Wolf Pack has ridden it into the Top 25 with a rushing offense that ranks third in the nation.

UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel decided to adopt portions of the pistol before this season, hoping to inject life into the Bruins’ running game. UCLA was ninth in the Pac-10 in rushing last year.

“Looking at ourselves as a running offense, looking at what we had coming back on the offensive line, and the guys we lost on the offensive line, it was a way we could survive,” said Neuheisel, who was UW’s coach from 1999 through 2002. “It wasn’t perfect for the guys we had, but it gave us a way to be a productive running team. Knowing what we were going to be missing on defense, to be able to control the ball was going to be vital.”

Indeed, one other difference in the pistol from the zone read-type offenses popularized by Oregon is that the play clock is often run down to zero before a snap, the opposite of a hurry-up.

For the most part it has worked — UCLA ranks fourth in the conference in rushing at 194.4 yards per game.

But some teams have shut down UCLA’s running attack — notably California, which held the Bruins to 26 yards after having been torn apart earlier in the year by Nevada.

And the Bruins haven’t completely been able to meld the pistol aspects of the running game with its traditional West Coast offense passing attack. UCLA ranks last in the conference in passing at 120.8 yards per game.

Neuheisel, whose Bruins are 4-5, said he didn’t expect as many problems with the passing game.

“But for us to have gotten to a place where we are still in the running for a bowl game,” he said, “it (the pistol) has given us a chance.”

And it could be a perfect fit against a UW team that is last in the Pac-10 and 118th out of 120 teams in the country in rushing defense, allowing 219.6 yards per game.

Huskies plan “blackout”

Washington confirmed Monday plans to paint it black for Thursday night’s game. Sarkisian said the team will wear black uniforms (jerseys and pants), the Husky Stadium end zones have been painted black, and T-shirts will be handed out to the student section in an effort to “black out” the stadium.

“We are just trying to do something special for our student body to keep them involved and excited about coming to watch us play,” Sarkisian said. “I think our kids are excited about it, and it adds a unique feel to a night game.”

Linebacker Cort Dennison said that players like the “blackout” theme.

“It’s something different, something we have never done before,” he said. “It’s going to be something fun for the fans, all wearing black.”

Dennison said the uniforms are “pretty sweet. … I think it’s a great thing for our program. A lot of the players have always talked about changing something up with the uniforms. Last year we kind of did that with the white-on-white and stuff and the white pants. It shows we will reach out of the box and are up for something new.”

Locker could be cleared Tuesday

Sarkisian said during his regular weekly meeting with the media Monday that quarterback Jake Locker could be medically cleared to play against the Bruins on Tuesday, though the clearance might not come until Wednesday.

Locker, who missed the Huskies’ game at Oregon on Nov. 6 because of a broken rib, again worked with the first team in practice Monday.


• The Oregonian newspaper reported that Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said he had received a written apology from UW athletic director Scott Woodward concerning comments Woodward made about UO’s academics before the game between the teams Oct. 30 in Eugene.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com