Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41: Breaking down the key plays

WarRoom Eagle

The Tigers had 13 offensive drives against the Aggies and scored on seven of them. Each scoring drive had at least one play that ultimately determined the result. These are those plays.

Each week this season, I've found a drive or two that determined the outcome of each game. This week, Auburn needed most drives to succeed just to hang in there. Despite being forced to punt four straight times from the middle of the second quarter to the beginning of the third and falling behind by as many as 10 points, Auburn scored on seven of its 13 drives (six TDs, one FG; end-of-halves excluded).

Each of those scoring drives had at least one play that made the difference. Sometimes, it was the touchdown play itself, like the Sammie Coates screen pass in the third quarter. Other times, it was a long pass to Jay Prosch on a wheel route that got Auburn out from deep in its own territory, continuing a 96-yard touchdown drive.

The Drive-Defining Plays

Each of the plays discussed below can be found in this highlight video with some others sprinkled in.

Play No. 1: 2nd-and-10 from the AUB 35

Corey Grant rushes left for 32 yards

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After broadcasting the thrills of Vandy beating Georgia and sharing the good news about the wonderment that is a Papa John's cookie, CBS finally decided its should show the game. Texas A&M had won the coin toss, elected to receive, and promptly scored on its first possession in only six plays. Auburn needed to answer.

Auburn showed some of the versatility in its offense in this drive by giving each running back some carries and throwing the ball early. Nick Marshall even had a scramble for a first down.

On this play, Auburn showed something unique to its offense, the quick huddle. If A&M had been in the SEC in 2009-2011, it might have known that a quick toss  was coming next, but as the offensive line all blocked to the right, the linebackers fell for it and followed. Trovon Reed and Sammie Coates each had a defender to block and Jay Prosch ran out of the backfield to find a block as well.

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Because the A&M linebackers had taken themselves out of the play, Prosch was able to use his block on the deep safety. So Auburn had three blockers and three defenders, meaning Corey Grant had an easy path down the field. That is, until A.J. Hilliard managed to recover from his linebacker position. Then it was four-on-four football. But with Grant's speed and elusiveness, he was able to make this would-be tackler miss before he ran for 32 yards.

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Auburn covered the last 33 yards of the field with only three runs and evened up the score early.

Play No. 2: 1st-and-10 from the AUB 38

Ricardo Louis rushes left for 32 yards

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A Ryan Smith interception ended Texas A&M's second drive, and Gus Malzahn wanted to hit a big play after that swing in momentum. To do so, this complicated play was called, complete with pre-snap motion, fake handoffs, a reverse and downfield blocking from offensive linemen.

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First, Grant ran out of the backfield to the right before the snap, drawing a couple of defenders with him. Once the play began, Marshall faked the hand off to Prosch (though he has no carries this year!) and then ran right, as well. Grant's motion toward the field caused the A&M defenders to lose track of wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who wheeled into the backfield, going left as Marshall tossed him the ball. Meanwhile, Prosch kicked out the only defensive lineman in position to make a play on the left side.

An interesting piece of this play was the offensive line blocking, particularly that of Reese Dismukes and Greg Robinson. They only grazed their initial blocks on the line and then got downfield, probably looking for those linebackers. But because Darian Claiborne and Steven Jenkins followed the Grant and Marshall motion, they had no one to block. Robinson did make it to the deep safety, but he was unable to keep the more agile defender from making the tackle 32 yards later.

Auburn would go as far as the TAMU 5-yard line, but after a botched snap and a loss of 4 yards, Auburn was forced to kick a field goal.

Play No. 3: 3rd-and-2 from the AUB 12

Nick Marshall passes right to Jay Prosch for 56 yards

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The Aggies answered that field goal with a touchdown of their own. Then, Auburn was forced to punt. Johnny Manziel had A&M's offense rolling until he tried to force a pass into the end zone. Instead of an Aggie touchdown, a Ryan White interception gave Auburn the ball at its own 4-yard line. Auburn immediately ran the ball twice and only gained eight yards, so to avoid punting from inside their own 20 and giving A&M great field position, the Tigers went back to the quick huddle.

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With a tight end, H-back and two receivers all to the right, the Aggies surely thought the toss was going right, and Jenkins blitzed from that side. Unfortunately for him, he was last man who could have covered Prosch. Meanwhile, Reed ran a seam route and Coates ran a deep post. These two routes carried nearly every pass defender both downfield and away from the sideline. Suddenly, Prosch was streaking down the sideline and there was no one within 10 yards of him.

Play No. 4: 3rd-and-Goal from the TAMU 13

Nick Marshall passes left to Quan Bray for 13 yards and a touchdown

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On the same drive that started at its own 4, Auburn faced third-and-goal from the TAMU 13. Tre Mason had just converted that miraculous fourth down from the 4-yard line, but a run for no gain, a false start (that negated a touchdown) and sack meant that if Auburn was going to reclaim the lead, it would have to be through the air.

Play4b_medium

The offensive line rolled its coverage to the right and A&M blitzed perfectly by bringing pressure to the offense's left. Mason was able to pick up Claiborne's rush, but Jenkins was flying in, hoping to give his team consecutive sacks. Auburn had three receivers to the left. Marcus Davis, the inmost receiver, read the blitz and executed his hot read. He broke his route off early to give Marshall a quick option, but Askew was in that zone. C.J. Uzomah was the next receiver over, but he was double-teamed all the way into the end zone.

Now, you can't see this very well, but the last receiver to the right, Quan Bray, was single-covered. He ran into the end zone and was probably just supposed to run dig route, but his defender had him covered to the inside and he saw that his quarterback was rolling his way to avoid pressure. He wisely broke back toward the sideline, escaped his defender's coverage, and made the catch when Marshall delivered the ball.

That was the last time Auburn would score in the first half, but after going 96 yards, this offense had proven it could not be easily stopped.

Play No. 5: 2nd-and-16 from the TAMU 43

Nick Marshall pass left to Sammie Coates for 43 yards and a touchdown

Play5a_medium

Auburn got the ball to start the second half, but was forced to punt, its fourth straight drive to end that way. Fortunately, it got the ball back quickly when A&M went three-and-out. But after a sack around midfield, it looked like the Tiger offense might stall out again.

On second-and-16, Malzahn called for a double screen play. To the right, the receivers did nothing out of the ordinary for this offense. They blocked the defenders in front of them like they do on most plays. But the guard and tackle abandoned their pass protection duties and looked for blocks down field. Mason ran right out of the backfield, looking for a screen pass so that he could take the ball down field behind his blockers.

At the same time, Davis bypassed his normal block and actually attacked the man defending Coates. While left tackle Robinson stayed behind to give a Marshall a little time, left guard Alex Kozan and center Dismukes abandoned their pass protection duties and looked for blocks. Specifically, Kozan attacked Davis' original defender, while Dismukes caught the deep safety.

Play5b_medium

I'm not sure if the screen set up to the right is a fake or a read, but if it is a read, A&M linemen Ivan Robinson and Isaiah Golden were the ones being read. As soon as they saw the Mason screen pass developing, they both began to sprint to it. And as soon as Marshall saw them attacking the screen to his right, he turned around and threw it left.

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All Sammie Coates did was run forward a few steps, turn around, catch the ball and take off. Like the long Grant run in the first quarter, there were three blockers for three defenders down the field. But this time, no Aggie could recover, and when you play four-on-three football, the team with four usually wins.

Play No. 6: 2nd-and-2 from the TAMU 13

Nick Marshall runs right for 13 yards and a touchdown

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Texas A&M had the ball as the fourth quarter began, and though they temporarily lost Manziel to a shoulder injury, the Aggies were able to stretch their lead to 10. Auburn needed to start scoring quickly or time would run out. So, Malzahn began to lean on the run game, punctuating it with deep passes. In this drive, Marshall and Coates finally connected on a 32 yard pass.

Just before the touchdown play, Cameron Artis-Payne took a zone read run up the middle for 17 yards. Auburn quickly got to the line of scrimmage and ran the exact same play, but Texas A&M calls for a different defensive look. Its secondary condenses down, but its defensive line doesn't get lined up. Marshall and Artis-Payne execute the zone read again, while Bray runs the bubble screen. The Tiger offensive line blows up the unprepared Aggies and at least two other defenders make crucial mistakes.

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First, Texas A&M defenders Toney Hurd and Polo Manukainiu both crash down inside. Sure, they just saw CAP gash their defense on the previous play, but one of them had to stay outside. Because both attack the inside run, Marshall has an easy read and takes the ball outside himself.

Second, the defender covering Bray performed well on the previous play, staying close enough to his receiver while keeping an eye in the backfield in case a run came his way. Perhaps the the hurry up had him distracted, but this time, he turns his back and blindly follows Bray out wide. Suddenly, the space Marshall needs to get down field is huge.

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Near the goal line, Reed is providing the last crucial block. Marshall runs off the block as well as he could, showing an inside move that gets Harris going one way. Then he cuts back outside of Reed's block and falls forward into the end zone. Notice how close Hurd and Manukainiu got to recovering from their mistakes. Even if one had stayed outside and Marshall broke their tackle, the other could have easily reached the quarterback before he scored a touchdown.

Play No. 7: 3rd-and-1 from the AUB 40

Tre Mason runs up the middle for 53 yards

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With Manziel still on the sideline or on the double-secret training table, A&M went three-and-out. After receiving the punt, the Tigers continued to give the Aggies a healthy dose of running, especially using the zone read.

This play is more of an example of a Texas A&M mistake rather than an Auburn success. Marshall normally reads whichever defensive player is the last one on the line. This time, linebacker Jenkins came down to the line of scrimmage. Avery Young blocked the defensive lineman inside Jenkins just fine, but he did get pushed back, or maybe he allowed the defender to get upfield by design.

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This would normally be OK since the linebacker was on the outside. This should have left a gaping hole in the middle for the quarterback give, so this is what Marshal did. But Jenkins twisted back inside, filling that hole. Jordan Mastrogiovanni was also in position to make a play.

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Fortunately for Auburn, Mason is fast and Jenkins was not prepared for that speed. He could only dive at the running back's ankles. Also, Mastrogiovanni read the play incorrectly and actually took a few steps to his right before leaping desperately for Mason. Mason flew down the field and stiff armed his way to a 53 -ard gain, setting up a go-ahead touchdown for Cameron Artis-Payne two plays later.

Play No. 8: 3rd and 9 from the TAMU 39

Nick Marshall passes right to Marcus Davis for 27 yards

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After getting his defective shoulder unit replaced, Manziel came back for the next Aggie drive. Somehow, he went 7-of-7 passing, threw for 61 yards and scrambled for the last yard needed for the go-back-ahead touchdown.

Down by three, Auburn needed to hit at least a field goal to tie the game, but the Tigers faced third down at the 39, well out of range for a reliable place kick. They ran the same play they did on second down, which is curious because the route Marshall and Davis connected with on third down was not open just before.

Coates ran a post route against a cornerback who was playing understandably deep. But Davis' man was actually on the line of scrimmage just before the snap. Coates drew the deep man away from the sideline which opened up Davis's wheel route, but that alone would not ensure a completion. On the previous play, Marshall threw the ball to Coates, at least partially because Nate Askew followed Davis' route downfield. On that play, Askew was playing off the line and had the cushion to recover when the route cut upfield.

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This time, Askew was on the line of scrimmage and was already behind Davis as soon as the play started. When the receiver hit the out portion of the route, Askew turned around to look for the ball, apparently expecting the quick out Davis has run so well this season. (See the Mississippi State game.) But Davis ran the exact same route as last time! Suddenly, Askew was beat, by only a step or so, but it was just enough for "accurate when he needs it" Marshall to fit it in.

Auburn scored two plays later to go ahead by four with just over one minute remaining in the game. Of course, this was too much time to give Manziel and Mike Evans.

Throughout the game, Auburn did not let A&M score on consecutive drives, except for the second Aggie field goal. And though A&M marched all the way to the 18-yard line, it was denied the touchdown it needed the win the game. The Auburn defense iced the game, but the Auburn offense certainly did its part to keep the Tigers in it.

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