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Wasted Red Zone Opportunities

What happens when one team makes mistakes in the red zone and the other doesn't?

Kevin C. Cox

So I have never written this sort of thing after a loss. (Spoiled, I know.) My son was born the day before Auburn fell to LaState last year and disappointment combined with blogger burnout to prevent a BCSCG recap. But this year, I'm still a father of just one and that one is much more flexible and independent than a day-old infant. Plus, I'm only contributing one post a week since Tuco is killing the defense breakdowns and opponent previews.

I could have skipped this loss, too, since I travelled all day Monday from middle Tennessee to Destin, Florida. But between the long walks on the beach with my wife and son, I'm throwing this together. If it doesn't hit the spot, so to say, definitely read (or reread) the TAKESUcB, and WwOW from the last few days, plus the spectacular piece by runyogasurf on the future of the basketball program. They stepped their game up in a big way this week.

Getting back to the State game...

Two early, terrible turnovers and two terrible penalties will be on the mind of Auburn fans for a long time. If Auburn doesn't lose the ball on the its first two offensive plays, does Mississippi State jump out to a 21-0 lead? Doubtful. If pass interference doesn't bite the Tigers on both sides of the ball, is Auburn able to climb out of the hole? Probable. After all, look at the Advanced Box Score.

Granted, the raw number may not mean a lot to you if you haven't been reading that blog for a while, but just look at how close they are. Starting field position, success rate, ISOPPP and line yards are all relatively close. The turnovers created gave State only 2.2 extra points, and, while State ruled the S&P in the first half, Auburn had the upper hand in the second.

However, the Bulldogs dominated the Tigers in just a few key areas. Nick Marshal was sacked on 11% of standard downs while Dak Prescott never was. Auburn's success rate on passing downs (whether it ran or pass) was a dismal 29%. And, what I feel decided the game, the Tigers scored 3.29 points per scoring opportunity (inside the 40) while the Bulldogs scored 5.43 points per scoring opportunity.

So what went wrong? Sometimes it only takes one play to kill a drive and, if it happens in the red zone, it effectively takes points off the board. Auburn had four red zone possessions in the first half and mistakes made the difference in each one.

Red Zone Mistake No. 1: Pre-Snap Read

After two turnovers and a sack in the first three possessions put Auburn in a 21-0 hole, Nick Marshall and Roc Thomas got the ball rolling to the State 11. A Cameron Artis-Payne run got inside the 10 yard line and, on second down, Gus Malzahn called for a pass play on 2nd & 8. Now, I'm not in the offensive meetings and I don't know how Marshall is being taught to make reads, but this looks like an over-reliance on D'haquille Williams.

Before the snap, there are two defenders to the left covering two receivers. There are three defenders to the right covering two receivers. Clearly the advantage is to the left, but as soon as the ball is snapped, Marshall turns to the right, probably hoping for Duke to come open. It never happens, Marshall misses an open receiver to the left as he's chased out of the pocket and is brought down for a loss of two.

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Red Zone Mistake No. 2: Misdirection Not Misdirecting Enough

I guess you can chalk this is mistake up to play calling. Auburn's offense is based a few things and one of those things is misdirection. But you can't just leave blockers alone and hope they follow a fake. You have to set it up and call the right play at the right time. I love that Gus has what I think is a QB Buck Sweep (the "in" variety), but it needed to fool just one more defender. And if things don't go just right, Nick can usually make one man miss, but a downfield block wasn't sealed as long as necessary, a block that could have turned a two yard gain into a touchdown.

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Red Zone Mistake No. 3: Getting Stuffed in the Run Game

So if the offense's misdirection plays aren't working, maybe the defense needs to be softened up the middle some more. On the third trip inside the red zone, Auburn ran a Counter to the left. Unfortunately, State's defense was in Cover 0, meaning the receivers were manned up and everyone else was basically playing the run. With the Counter, the pulling guard is supposed to kick out the defensive end, but State's end blew up the guard instead. With no lane to lead block through, the H-back got in the way more than he helped. The only thing the running back can do in this case is bounce it outside, but the defensive end makes contact in the backfield and the alley defender reins him in.

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Mistake No. 4: State has Two Robbers

Sometimes, the defense will make a bigger mistake than the offense and when that happens, it has to pay. That's what happened on Auburn's last red zone trip of the first half. The Bulldogs played the pass as they only rushed four and had double coverage on the outside receivers. But they had three defenders to cover two receivers in the middle and there was a crucial mistake. Two players stood hip to hip about eight yards past the line of scrimmage and no one played the deep middle. Duke Williams got behind them on a skinny post route, Nick Marshall had enough time to survey the field and he made the easy throw for the touchdown.

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Mistakes happen in football. There are 22 players on the field all running in different directions. There's a reason the game gives the offense four tries to get just 10 yards while giving the defense 100 yards of field before they give up a score. But Auburn had excelled all season at not making mistakes in the red zone. And its offense is built on forcing the defense to make mistakes. Hopefully the players and coaching staff get back to that winning formula throughout the rest of the season.