Various buzz words have been used to label Gus Malzahn's offense since he made the jump to NCAA coaching in 2006. "Up-Tempo," "Hurry-Up", and "No-Huddle" (or simply HUNH) describe the pace at which his offense operates. Some described it as "spread" because any team whose quarterback was in shotgun was labeled "spread". In this enlightened age, pundits are more willing to at least differentiate different forms of the "spread" and will label Auburn's offense as "power spread," or "smashmouth spread."
But one phrase gained particular traction early on in comment sections and message boards. Rather than showing brute strength, Malzahn's teams looked like it used a lot of smoke and mirrors. Finesse, if you will. And trick plays. Oh the trick plays. "Sure," they said, "Malzahn's teams put up good numbers, but there is no way a team will consistently succeed in the Ess-Eee-See with a high school offense."
High. School. Offense.
That offense has now won two SEC championships and reached the National Championship game twice. Plus, it has beaten every team in the SEC at least once (except Vanderbilt. Malzahn has never faced the 'Dores). So no one uses that phrase anymore because of the success it has had at this level. But the smoke and mirrors, the misdirection, and the gadget plays are all still there.
And Auburn unleashed them on LSU.
The Jet Sweep Reverse
Auburn likes to throw a reverse off of the jet sweep in there every now and then, most famously resulting in a long touchdown in the 2009 Iron Bowl. If the defense over-pursues the jet sweep and doesn't leave a defender to the backside, it can result in a huge play.
On its sixth play of the game, the Tiger offense uses the reverse and has the defense right where it wants it except for one player. The backside cornerback notices the ball coming back his way and charges forward. Normally, the left tackle would have peeled off of the line and made his way over to the left to clean this up, the Shon Coleman trips on his way out of the mess in the middle.
He can't reach the cornerback before the cornerback reaches Corey Grant and the play is limited to just three yards. But clearly the Tigers were looking to hit big plays early and this setback did not discourage them.
Jet Sweep Flea Flicker
When the Wildcat became so popular six or seven years ago, teams left their starting quarterback in the formation so that defenses couldn't see it coming before lining up. If a team took out its quarterback off the field, the opponent would be able to adjust its personnel to counter the Wildcat set.
When the Wildcat doesn't work, we as fans try to find something to blame it on. I've heard (and agreed) with several things, one being that leaving the quarterback in wastes a player. However, you never know when Malzahn is going to call this trick pass, like he did against Washington State last year.
Quan Bray takes the snap and hands off to Corey Grant who promptly pitches the ball back to Jeremy Johnson. The offensive line is already set up to pass protect to that side with the offset tackle. During all this, there are four defenders literally hopping in place wondering what to do and another two watch the backfield as Sammie Coates blows right by them. With four pass rushers and six defenders standing still, LSU only has one man deep to challenge Coates' post route. Johnson throws the ball so that Coates can shield that defender and make the catch.
Sneaky Tight Ends
When Auburn used this play against San Jose State, I noticed that even though Ricardo Louis caught the touchdown pass, C.J. Uzomah was open as well. Against LSU, the fake sweep motion to the left fooled no one except for maybe some defensive linemen. The linebackers and safeties in coverage, however, all quickly diagnosed this as a play to the right.
Four defenders in particular were in position to snuff out the play except for one glaring mistake. No one covered the tight end. Granted, he came out of the traditional left tackle position after a quick huddle, so the defense didn't see him as a threat. But once the slot receiver's post route pulled his defender away to the left, Uzomah was all by himself.
Just the Threat of a "Trick Play"
Packaged plays, play-option passes, or pop passes are widely considered to be the future of offensive football. While some claim they are just trick plays that capitalize on lax ineligible receiver rules, they continue to spread throughout football, from college to the pros and from spread offenses to pro-style offenses.
What's neat about this particular packaged play is that it takes what the defense gives it, but each option the defense takes away opens a more devastating option. The first read is the defensive end. Had this defender stayed outside, CAP would have probably gained a few yards up the middle or bounced it outside for a few more. Instead, the end man took a few big steps inside, so Marshall kept it and Marshall outside is a bigger threat than CAP up the middle.
The next read is the playside cornerback. This read is where the passing option comes in and Auburn has only hit it a few times, but the results against Alabama and Arkansas speak for themselves. LSU's cornerback isn't playing the run at all as he retreats with Coates from the snap. The safety, however, starts to come down to attack Marshall's path which would likely open a comeback route or hitch for Coates. Until he sees Marshall looking down field with both hands on the ball, that is. He quickly retreats to help cover Coates and prevent a back-breaking play.
Because of Marshall's patience waiting to see if Coates could get open and the athleticism of LSU's defensive end, the quarterback is barely able to turn the corner and get "north and south" but when he does, he has plenty of running room ahead as the two secondary defenders to that side were preoccupied with the threat of a pass. Sure, Auburn didn't get to throw the touchdown pass, but I'm sure Malzahn is okay taking what the defense gives him, especially if, as in this case, it is giving him 15 yards.
Not So "High School"
If you have access to ESPN3, I suggest watching the Skycam video of the game. You can watch the whole game from behind the line of scrimmage, like the third and fourth gifs above. Plus, the sounds from the field and the stands are all you hear. No commentators to rile you up. (I'm looking at you, Bobby Barkley.)
As I watched this version of the replay, I noticed how Auburn was also able to move the ball even without gadgetry and trickery. In particular, I noticed that Marshall calmly went through pass progressions instead of staring down his primary receiver. That's partially how Artis-Payne got his three catches for 35 yards. When the receivers were covered, Marshall found his check-downs, and they rewarded him with healthy gains.
Another thing I noticed was the seemingly improved chemistry on the offensive line. There were several plays where two linemen combo'd a defensive lineman, one then moved up to the second level for a linebacker and the running back made nice gain because the next available tackler was deep in the secondary. For a reminder on how combo blocks should work, see this Inside Zone breakdown. I don't know how much of the success should be attributed to the different lineup or LSU's lack of production up front or Auburn simply opening up the run with the pass, but I hope it's a sign of good things to come.