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Auburn 35, Arkansas 17: Breaking down the vanilla playbook

Auburn was up only 14-3 at halftime, and the game felt close when Arkansas pulled to within 11 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. In the end, Auburn was able to get an 18-point victory and only had to use some its most basic plays.

WarRoom Eagle

Set up by two turnovers, Auburn led Arkansas 14-3 at halftime having only run 21 plays. Of those 21 plays, 18 were rushes, and of those, only three were not some variation of the inside zone read. The Tigers ran 32 plays in the second half, and put the ball in the air only six times, plus one sack. The zone read was used extensively again, but the power running game came into play, as well.

I saw folks writing about how few plays calls Auburn actually executed. I saw numbers as low as nine, but by my count, I saw 11 distinct plays. Of course, there are variations that make many of the same plays look different, so my count is far from official. But, these are the plays I saw and some things I noticed about them.

Inside Zone Read

The Inside Zone Read  is probably Auburn's most basic run, so it was called more than any other play. But it also gets the most "window dressing" with different formations and personnel. Overall, it was run 28 times. That's right. More than half of the Tiger's plays were variations of the zone read. The most common formations were the 20 and Twins formations. Both are two-back, three-receiver formations, and Tre Mason and Jay Prosch were in the backfield for this play nearly every time.

Of the 28 times this play was executed, seven came from the four-wide spread formation, four came from the three-back diamond formation and three came with Shon Coleman in as a sixth lineman. I believe that was the first time I've seen a six-lineman formation that was not a Wildcat play.

After a botched snap and fumble by the Razorbacks, Auburn took over at the Arkansas 29. The Tigers came out in the Diamond formation and ran a play similar to the one shown below. Mason took the ball up the middle, bounced it outside and gained 20 yards before being caught from behind.


On the very next play, Auburn shifted to a two-back formation, but faced a eight-man box. At the snap, Ricardo Louis was still trying to figure out what the play call was, and his defender, Eric Bennett, was focused on this. Meanwhile, linebacker Brooks Ellis began to chase after Nick Marshall carrying out his fake.



Moments after the snap, Mason was already five yards down field from his starting point, but Louis had just then turned around to look for the snap. Bennett, who was watching Louis for indication of the play starting, had only stepped up a yard and was still looking at his receiver. Inside the box, two defenders took themselves out of the play by attacking the formation wide. That left six defenders for six blockers. But Ellis had taken himself out of the play, as well. By chasing Marshall's initial motion, he abandoned his responsibility to his right and Mason was able to squeeze through the line even though one of his blockers had fallen.



Finally, Mason ran through the line and straight into the end zone. Two defenders should have been in position to make a play, but one was distracted and the other bit on a fake.



Of course, Auburn didn't have to rely on sleeping defenders to have success with this play. For every time a linebacker plays his responsibilities correctly, a lineman keeps his footing and makes that block. Plus, an alert safety probably still gives up at least three yards before he is able to influence the runner, and Mason is great at getting yards after contact.

Click here for video of the two zone read plays.

Power O

The Power O is another basic run, one Auburn has used plenty this season, though it waited until the second half to use it against Arkansas. It was run eight times, but it was only used in the most vanilla way once. Seven times, it was called from the six-lineman formation and of those seven, six incorporated a jet sweep motion through the backfield. It was used four times in a row in the drive for Auburn's fifth touchdown, and it was the scoring play for the third.

Auburn showed a formation with all 11 players inside or near the hash marks as it was looking to pound the ball in for a touchdown with six offensive lineman, including Coleman. Arkansas appropriately responded by bringing all 11 defenders in close. Corey Grant sprinted into the backfield and, when the ball was snapped, Marshall faked a handoff to him. At the same time, Alex Kozan was pulling around the center and right guard.


This fake Jet Sweep was convincing enough to affect four Razorbacks, and none more important than the safety. The four linemen to the Mason's left successfully sealed off four defenders, while three blockers to Mason's right held their blocks on three defenders. The only player who could have made a stop was the Arkansas safety, but well after the handoff to Mason, he was still looking for the ball in Grant's hands.


There should be no way 11 defenders can't stop a run up the middle like that, but when one fake to the outside effectively blocks four people, it's too easy.

Click here for video of the Power O play.

Bubble Screen

The Bubble Screen is a bit of a touchy subject for some fans, and the numbers here shed some light on that. This play was only used four times, and the first two gained 11 and nine yards, respectively. But the third one went nowhere and the fourth gained only two yards. That is still an average of 5.5 yards per play, but the when it fails, it can be frustrating.

Below is a great example of how well a bubble screen can work. Louis was in the slot, but unlike in the zone read touchdown above, he was covered by linebacker Braylon Mitchell instead of a safety. This immediately gave Auburn a few advantages. Louis already had outside leverage on his defender, and the screen route led him even further outside. Plus, this receiver should be quicker than the linebacker.


Louis immediately ran to his left looking for the ball while Mitchell had to sit and wait on a potential run. Once the ball was delivered by Marshall, Louis had a good lead on his defender, and C.J. Uzomah had a good block on his man. Louis was able to gain 11 yards and a first down.


Inverted Veer

Like the Zone Read, this is another read-option play, but it was only used three times. With Marshall's injury status, the coaches probably didn't want him keeping and running up the middle too often. After running it the first time, Auburn immediately used Inverted Veer play action to complete a 9-yard pass early in the game. In fact, it was the first pass to go for positive yardage.


Other Plays

No other basic play was run more than twice. Listed below is every basic play I saw and how many times Auburn ran it. If there was a modification, it is included in the main count, but also counted separately. For example, there were 28 Zone Read plays, and most of them were out of the standard two-back formation, but four of the 28 were run out of the diamond formation.

Basic Play Modifier Frequency Modified Frequency
Bubble Screen 4
Draw 2
Smoke 1
Go (pass) 1
Inverted Veer 3
Post (pass) play action 1
Power O 8
6 OL 1
6 OL w/ sweep 6
QB Draw 1
Sack 1
Screen (pass) 2
play action 1
Double Screen 1
Sluggo/Flat (pass) Inverted Veer PA 1
Sweep 1
Zone Read 28
10 personnel 7
6 OL 3
Diamond 4
H-back counter 3

Something interesting I found is that there wasn't really a situational pattern to these play calls. In the HUNH, if a play works, the team can quickly run it again until it doesn't. It helps that there are options or reads on many plays. So, for example, Auburn doesn't run an Inverted Veer on a certain down and distance or at a certain yard line. Instead, it calls the play once, and if it works, it just might run it again and again until the defense can stop it.

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