Auburn once again fell behind early when it played Georgia last Saturday. But, unlike the games against Mississippi State and Texas A&M, there was no comeback to speak of. Dropped balls and poor blocking played a big part, but there were a few big plays that could have turned things around if not for momentum-canceling penalties.
On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs didn't exactly play a perfect game. Their offense was flagged three times, but they got a first down afterwards every time.
How often does a penalty kill a drive? Is the Auburn offense particularly good at shooting itself in the foot and not being able to walk it off? Is this defense willing to give offenses a mulligan when they commit holding or false start penalties? Well, look at the data.
I created this chart using previously available data from cfbstats.com. These are 2013 numbers. (The raw play-by-play data is not available for 2014. Thanks College Football Playoff Committee!) I tried to extract every teams' penalties on the offensive side of the ball and see if they managed to get another first down before facing a fourth down. There are sure to be inaccuracies (if a team turned the ball over on the next play, they aren't dinged for having to punt), but I think it's pretty close to reality.
For Auburn's 2014 season, I manually went through the play-by-play at auburntigers.com. I counted every offensive penalty and noted whether the Tigers were able to recover and get a first down or if they had to punt. And since everything has fallen apart since the LSU game, I separated Auburn's last 5 games as well.
Finally, I used the same sources and methods to see what defenses were doing when their opponents' offenses were penalized.
A few observations...
First, the charts could be a bit better if I changed total penalties into penalties per play. Texas Tech and Baylor run a lot of plays in a game and they lead the nation in total penalties. Meanwhile, Navy is near the bottom in plays per game and has committed the fewest penalties. Also, the number for Auburn 2014 (post LSU) is clearly skewed since it only counts half a season. Regardless, the percentage is the interesting part of the chart.
Last year, Auburn was pretty good at avoiding penalties and was above average at avoiding fourth downs immediately after. This year, Auburn has drawn one fewer flag, but with four fewer games. Worse, the Tigers are only avoiding fourth down 54.2% of the time. This would have been 112th out of 125 teams last year. Starting with the game in Starkville, Auburn only keeps 30.8% of those penalized drives alive. That would have been dead last in 2013, and I bet it is the worst this year, too.
Now to the defense. Last year's defense was #lucky to face some very penalized offenses, tied for first in the country. But when an opposing offense did get flagged, Ellis Johnson's unit was only able to stop the drive there 66.7% of the time, good for 70th out of 125 teams. This year, due to regression to the mean and facing a Bill Snyder-coached team (who threatens to shoot players who commit penalties), opponents' offenses have only committed 26 penalties, albeit in four fewer games. However, the percentage of those drives that earn another first down has gotten worse, 73.1%. And if you only count the last five games, it's crept up to 76.9%.
What does this tell me and you? I'm not sure, but allow me to think out loud for a bit.
When an offense is penalized, it has put itself in a hole and it needs a big play to recover. Not a bomb downfield, necessarily, but 5 yard gains probably won't cut it. Instead, the runs need to get yards after contact, the passes must be caught, and when a catch is made, the receiver needs to get yards after the catch.
None of those three things happens with Auburn's offense right now, or at least not to the degree they did last year. Cameron Artis-Payne is a very good back who leads the SEC in rushing yards, but Tre Mason was a "yards after contact" machine. Nick Marshall and the receivers have been anything but consistent this year with tipped balls, dropped catches and simple inaccuracy each taking their turn to hurt the passing game. And, while I don't have the numbers to back this up, a lot of this offense's intermediate passes are the sort that get the receiver tackled immediately.
When an opponent's offense is flagged and gets "behind the chains," the defense should either get quick pressure on the quarterback or play conservatively and make sure tackles. That's an oversimplification, but, in general, if the defense can do one of those things well when an offense is in trouble, the drive will be over very soon.
Last year, Auburn's defense was held together by the defensive line's ability to make the passer's life uncomfortable. This year, as Ellis Johnson has intimated, there is no pass rush to speak of. Also, tackling is no longer a strength on this team. And if an offense needs a big play to recover from a penalty, Auburn's secondary full of converted players with little experience is a good defense to try it against.
How does Auburn fix this? Well, a lot of it would be fixed by improving across the board. If a team has a more explosive offense, then recovering from penalties is easier. If a team makes surer tackles, then stopping penalized teams is easier. It would also help the no one was holding every time a big play unfolded.
Regardless, the Tigers played great football early in the season, but they peaked too early this year, unlike what Gus Malzahn wanted. After the Louisiana Tech game, he said, "We don't want to peak yet. You see every year there's teams that peak, and they start going like that (waving his hand up and down). We still want to continue to go up."
Auburn didn't continue to go up. It peaked and then fell way down. But there are two more games left, three including the bowl game, and there is still time to go like this (raises his hand up into the air).