By moving away from Mason, Auburn moved away from success

Todd Van Emst

Auburn running back Tre Mason saw his carries dramatically reduced in the second half, and the Tiger offense fell off a cliff.

In a season that is shaping up to be one of the worst seasons Auburn has ever seen, the Tigers have developed some disturbing trends. Shocking, right? Right now, it's hard to see Auburn finishing with a better record than 3-9, and if that holds up, the Tigers will lose nine games for the first time since going 0-10 in 1950. That season was the last for Earl Brown, and Auburn went out and hired a guy named Ralph Jordan before the '51 season. That move worked out pretty well.

For Auburn in 2012, one of the worst trends has been "stopping opponents' bleeding." A few teams have been looking to end various streaks of dubious sort, and the Tigers have been happy to oblige. Mississippi State was looking for its first non-Ole Miss SEC West win under Dan Mullen. Check. Arkansas was looking to end a four-game losing streak and a miserable start to the season. Check. And Ole Miss was aiming to snap a 16-game SEC losing streak and win its first conference game since Nov. 21, 2009, against LSU.

Another trend that has led to disaster more often than not is the underutilization of running back Tre Mason. Mason has been Auburn's best running back between the tackles, and considering the type of offense Scot Loeffler wants to employ, successful running between the tackles should be a priority. For some reason, Mason just hasn't been receiving the appropriate amount of carries, as he was averaging 11.8 in the first five games of the year. Against Ole Miss, Loeffler needed to come up with a change in strategy, and for a half, he produced.

The biggest change in strategy for the Ole Miss game was inserting quarterback Clint Moseley instead of Kiehl Frazier. The idea was for Moseley to be a game manager in Scot Loeffler's pro-style look, and for a half, it worked. Through two quarters, Moseley was 8 of 8 for 90 yards. No, he wasn't lighting up the box score, but he was doing his job, completing easy throws to open receivers and the long, play-action pass to Sammie Coates. Auburn based its offense on Mason's ability to run between the tackles, and it allowed Moseley to have easy passing situations. After questionable play-calling all season, Loeffler's first-half plan was nearly perfect, and it showed. After falling behind, 14-0, the Tigers rallied for three straight scores and went into the locker room tied at 17.

Comp-Att-Int Yds TD Long Sack
First half Moseley 8-8-0 90 0 42 0
Second half Moseley 3-10-1 22 0 9 2

In the second half, Loeffler got away from the power run game, another bad trend that has dominated this season, and asked Moseley to do more in less-than-ideal passing situations. The result was an offense that looked so good in the first half looked like its old, underachieving self in the second. After carrying the ball 13 times for 46 yards and two scores in the first half, Mason was limited to five carries and 36 yards in the final two quarters. The main reason for this is because the Auburn offense often found itself behind the eight ball, needing to pick up bigger chunks of yards. And the reason for that is because Mason wasn't being utilized in the same way he was in the first half. Before halftime, Auburn ran 15 first-down plays, and Mason was given eight carries on eight of those plays. The result: Auburn averaged 8.1 yards per play on first down. The biggest payoff was Moseley's long pass to Coates. Auburn had the ball in great field position, and everyone knew the Tigers would probably take a shot deep in that situation. But because Mason had been running well and getting plenty of first-down carries, Ole Miss was forced to stay honest and respect the run. Moseley faked the handoff and hit an open Coates streaking down the field. Obviously, that play had a big impact on Auburn's yards per first down, but even without it, the Tigers averaged 5.7 yards, which is more than acceptable.

AU 1D plays Mason carries Yds Avg AU Yds Avg
First half 15 8 39 4.8 122 8.1
Second half 10 4 39 9.8 48 4.8

In the second half, Auburn wasn't using Mason as often on first downs, giving him just four carries out of 10 possible opportunities. It's tempting to look at the final score and say, "Well, Auburn was playing from behind in the second half. The Tigers didn't have the luxury of grinding out yards," but that really isn't the case. Auburn was within one score until there was 5:02 remaining in the game. And even at that point, the Tigers could have focused on the run. Auburn took over at the Ole Miss 35, and Moseley immediately threw a first-down interception, essentially sealing the game. With such a short field, a first-down run wouldn't have hurt Auburn too badly in terms of clock management. Of course, had Auburn used Mason a little more on first downs in the second half, that first-down throw by Moseley may have come against more favorable coverage.

Averaging 4.8 yards per first down isn't bad, but taking away Auburn's best play, a 26-yard run by Mason, changes the story. On the nine other first down plays, three of which were Mason carries, Auburn gained just 22 yards, a 2.4-yard average. Aside from the long first down plays, Auburn looked at an average of 2nd and 4 in the first half and 2nd and 8 in the second half. With so many 2nd-and-longs, Auburn faced more 3rd-and-longs in the second half, leading to conversions on just 1 of 7 third downs. In the first half, Auburn was 4 of 8 on third downs. Looking at those numbers, it's easy to see why the Tigers had much more success in the first 30 minutes, and why it was much easier to gain first downs. Auburn picked up 10 in the first half and three in the second.

Not only did Auburn's shift away from Mason hurt the offense, it had serious repercussions on the defense. The Tiger 'D' spent 9:14 on the field in the first half, compared to 16:26 in the second. As a result, Ole Miss racked up 280 yards in the final 30 minutes after gaining 176 in the first half hour. With a powerful offense, the Rebels weren't going to be completely shut down, but Auburn need to focus on ball control to keep the opposing offense off the field. The Tigers were able to do that for a while, but after shifting the offensive strategy and losing the ability to sustain long drives, it was impossible.

Ole Miss offense
Rush yds Pass yds Total Avg/play Points
First half 76 110 186 6.2 10
Second half 124 141 265 7.2 24

Loeffler had the the right gameplan in the first half, and he gave Auburn a chance to win. But in the second half, for whatever reason, he abandoned it, and Auburn fell flat. At 1-5 with three incredibly difficult games remaining, there isn't much for Auburn to salvage this season, but if Chizik and Loeffler want to give Auburn any chance at winning next week against Vanderbilt, they'll let Mason be the offense's foundation for a full 60 minutes.

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