Auburn's running game looked like its old 2013 self against South Carolina. There was room up the middle and any third down was usually a short and easily convertible one. How did that happen? Is South Carolina just that bad? Did Auburn's offensive line finally gel? It's certainly a result of lots of factors, but one big factor I noticed was that Auburn got back to attacking the edge, and not just with jet sweeps. The Tigers got the ball outside the box with sweeps, quarterback keepers, bubble screens, and just bouncing inside runs outside when possible.
Whether it was my article hoping for better blocking on sweep plays, beat writer Ryan Black reminding Gus Malzahn that Ricardo Louis can run sweeps, or Auburn's own self-scouting during the bye week, the Tigers remembered that playing on the perimeter is a big part of their offense. (Hint: it was the last one.)
Ricardo Louis and the Jet Sweep
First, let me say that South Carolina used the same Auburn-stopping tactics we've seen this season, run blitzers from either a safety or a slot defender. Well, they used those tactics on Auburn's first offensive drive anyway. And it forced two two third downs and a punt.
When Auburn got the ball back at its own 8 yard line after the Cassanova McKinzy interception, South Carolina was playing it safe with two very deep safeties. After all, Gus Malzahn has a habit of throwing long when deep in his own territory. The only aggressive move made by the Gamecock D was to bring a linebacker to the line.
The Tigers used their quick huddle and got the ball into the hands of Ricardo Louis. With Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Fulse already in the backfield, Louis had two lead blockers into the alley. The aggressiveness of that linebacker on the line worked against South Carolina as both he and an unblocked defensive end took themselves out of the play.
Shon Coleman worked up to the playside linebacker, Fulse got in the way of the backside linebacker coming over, D'haquille Williams blocked the playside safety down field, and CAP was chasing down the backside safety. This allowed Louis to get north and south very quickly and get a quick 19 yards. If Fulse and Duke had made better blocks, Louis might have had a 92 yard touchdown. Instead, everyone waited to execute the play perfectly in the third quarter for Louis' 75 yard touchdown.
Nick Marshall and the Zone Read Keep
Later in the same drive, South Carolina brought the run blitz from the linebacker again. Auburn's formation prevented any real pressure from the safeties by going four-wide with three to one side. Now, the Gamecock's should have been able to play this pretty well, since the unblocked defensive end could have taken the running back and the linebacker could have taken the quarterback, but they both chased the fake up the middle!
Early last year, once Marshall got outside, a big gain would have depended on the block of Sammie Coates on the cornerback. But ever since Auburn has shown the down field pass after the QB keep, the corner chases after the receiver and Marshall has tons of running room. This time, the playside safety eventually came down to make a play, but only after allowing 18 yards.
Quan Bray and the Bubble Screen
One previously common play that has been suspiciously quiet is the bubble screen. If a defense is blitzing slot defenders, this quick pass can force the opponent to back off, but Auburn has been hesitant to use it. Until last Saturday.
The Gamecocks blitzed two linebackers on this play and they played smart this time, with one taking the running back and the other staying wide to corral the quarterback. But the strong side safety was playing way off the slot receiver, Quan Bray. At the snap, Bray widened across the field and Marshall zipped the ball his way. The safety saw what was happening, but C.J. Uzomah got in his face.
The corner originally defending Uzomah was the only man who could prevent a decent gain. He could have charged after Bray and attempted a tackle for loss, but if he missed, it might have been a touchdown. Instead he parked himself at the eight yard line and waited for Bray to come to him. Now, Bray is a punt returner for crying out loud, so one flat-footed man isn't going to stop him cold. Instead, he juked around him and got to the two yard line to set up another Auburn touchdown.
Nick Marshall and the Bubble Threat
On the next drive, Auburn moved 38 yards on six plays, both on the ground and through the air. On the seventh play, Marshall gained 37 yards himself by attacking the edge while threatening another bubble screen. Only one player was left unblocked this time, but he bit hard on the middle run. The rest of the defensive line was stonewalled by great zone blocking. The defensive end to the offense's right even twisted around to cause some assignment confusion, but it was picked up very well.
Corey Grant of all people played the role of the H-back in this play, though he didn't line up in the H-back position. He sliced through the backfield to pick up any defenders in the alley, but there wasn't anyone there. What happened?
Well, the slot defender that had been blitzing was instead widening alongside Bray's bubble screen. He even looked back to see what was going on in the middle of the field, saw that Marshall was looking to throw, and then ran away from the ball. I'm not blaming him. That was probably his assignment. But this play really took advantage of the defense finally covering the bubble.
Cameron Artis-Payne and Bouncing the Run Outside
All of the previous plays are from the first half. For three straight possessions, the Tigers attacked the edge with success and earned three touchdowns. On Auburn's first drive of the third quarter, South Carolina decided it was tired of letting bubble screens and quarterback keepers gash its defense. By formation, it played the bubble honestly and the unblocked defensive end stayed wide rather than crashing down to stop the running back. So Auburn let CAP and Roc Thomas take over.
Auburn showed another single-back formation and South Carolina responded with a 4-2 look. With one defender being essentially blocked by a read, the Tigers had 5 blockers for five defenders if they could just reach those linebackers. Based on the alignment of the defense, Avery Young would have a one-on-one block while Chad Slade and Reese Dismukes double teamed the nose tackle and Devonte Danzey and Shon Coleman combined to block the 3-tech.
After getting an initial push, Dismukes and Coleman got into the linebackers, but that didn't create much room to run inside. To the right, both receivers ran down field and the defense vacated the area, so CAP did what he had worked on during the bye week, bouncing runs outside. He scampered for 18 yards down the sideline to get to midfield. Two plays later, Marshall hit Fulse on the Wheel route and Auburn proceeded to pound South Carolina for 31 yards in eight plays, all on the ground.
What we learned
The big question this week has been, "Is Auburn now that good, or is South Carolina that bad?" I still don't know. I know Auburn can't rely on two unblocked defenders consistently chasing the same guy. That won't happen very often and as I pointed out above, the Gamecocks corrected that as the game went along.
But I do think Auburn showed its answer to the run blitzing safety. South Carolina dropped a safety like K-State did early in the game and it worked, but they abandoned that tactic after just the first drive. Why? Because Auburn's passing game, while infrequent, was precise. The Dig routes to Sammie Coates and the Slants to D'haquille Williams could be even bigger plays if the safeties weren't there to make the tackle after the catch. And with Coates and Duke on opposite sides of the formation, both safeties have to stay deep.
So if the passing game is keeping the safeties deep and attacking the edge keeps linebackers, nickel backs and other slot defenders honest, this offense is going to absolutely pound its upcoming opponents.