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Xs and Os: The Last Card to be Played

Does Gus Malzahn have anymore tricks up his sleeve? Any counters set up and traps ready to be sprung? He's done it before.

Butch Dill/Getty Images

Gus Malzahn has a bit of a reputation as a genius. An offensive football genius. One of his genius tactics (at least according to fans) is to slowly build on the offense as the season continues. Sure, Auburn showed some new plays against Arkansas in the first game of the year, but as the offense was victim to some slow starts in the next four games, fans said things like, "Don't worry. Gus isn't showing all his cards yet. He has answers to what defenses are doing. He's just waiting until he needs them to use them."

Here we are, one day before the Iron Bowl, the last regular season game of 2014. This game should be the culmination of this year's true offense. Every additional wrinkle this offense holds Malzahn has to be unveiled. Every counter and trick play he's been setting up has to be unleashed. And every tendency he's allowed to build has to be broken against the unsuspecting Crimson Tide. How's that worked out in the past?

2009 - Auburn Punches Bama in the Mouth

In 2009, Gene Chizik's and Gus Malzahn's first year on the Plains, Auburn was a big underdog to the undefeated Alabama team, so the offense went for big plays and trick plays. And it worked.


On Auburn's fourth play, the offense showed a zone read with a third pitch option to the right. But Terrell Zachery took a reverse back to the left and scored from 67 yards out. A risky play paid off.

On the ensuing kickoff, Wes Byrum and company executed an onside kick with a bit of a Braveheart feel to it.

Onside Kick

With the recovery, Auburn went back to work with plays that could be called non-traditional (to put it lightly). The Tigers converted long 2nd down when Kodi Burns lateraled back to Chris Todd who found Darvin Adams for a 22 yard gain.

Double Pass

Auburn went for the homerun ball in a similar fashion on the very next play, but just missed it.

Reverse Pass

After that, the Tigers went back to its standard offense and scored to go up by 14 in the first half. Unfortunately, the offense didn't do much the rest of the game and the defense was unable to hold on. But clearly Malzahn had saved some tricks for the 2009 Iron Bowl.

2010 - Auburn Makes a Comeback

In 2010, It was an undefeated Auburn team that faced an out-of-contention Alabama team, but it didn't feel that way in the first quarter. After falling behind 24-0, the Tigers had to find a spark on offense. The Tide had an answer for everything the Tigers were doing so Malzahn started breaking some tendencies.

Auburn was facing another third down and it desperately needed to start converting some. Malzahn called for a bubble screen look, a staple constraint play meant to pull run defenders out of the box. But the actual play call was a constraint for the constraint. Since Alabama had an answer for the run and the bubble, they had to be weak somewhere else. Kodi Burns found that weakness just behind the defenders watching the bubble.

Fake Bubble

Cam Newton hit Emory Blake for a touchdown five plays later, including yet another 3rd down catch by Kodi Burns.

In the second half, Onterio McCalebb had two big runs to set up the third touchdown. McCalebb having a big run is nothing out of the ordinary, but calling run plays up the middle for him is.

Middle McCalebb

Alabama only had six in the box and two of them were solely dedicated to stopping Newton. The blocking at the point of attack was perfect and McCalebb was able to gain 11 and 20 yards on two consecutive plays. Newton himself ran it in three plays later to pull within three.

In the fourth quarter, Auburn faced a fourth down at the Alabama 47. Now down by six, Chizik and Malzahn knew they wouldn't have many more chances to complete the comeback. They decided to go for it, but they used a formation that gave the Tide players something to think about.

Did you know Cam Newton has punting stats? That's because near the end of the first half against Louisiana Monroe, Newton actually punted the ball. It wasn't the best punt ever, but it was on film. Auburn used the same formation in Tuscaloosa, but when the ball was snapped, Darvin Adams ran down field, got open along the sideline, and snagged the ball just before stepping out of bounds.

Fake Punt

The last play of that drive is one we've seen countless times. Though not a tendency breaker or a trick play, it was a great time to call a unique play that could catch a defense asleep. The ball was snapped and the entire offense flowed to the right. Two backs stayed in to pass protect and even the tight end gave a block on the right edge. But soon that tight end slipped away from the pocket undetected. Cam Newton avoided pressure just long enough to find Philip Lutzenkirchen wide open to the left. The comeback was complete and the Lutzie was born.


2013 - Auburn Goes Toe to Toe with Alabama

Last year's Iron Bowl ended with an amazing play. A crazy play. A perfectly planned and executed play. But the 59:59 before the Kick Six was pretty back and forth. So did Auburn use trick plays to catch Alabama off guard? Did it have to get away from its normal offense to move the ball? No and no. Last year, the Tigers ran their offense and it worked.

The first touchdown was just Nick Marshall outrunning every defender after keeping on the zone read. The second was set up by Tre Mason and the Counter play three times in a row. The third was set up by a unique play (a zone read bubble triple option), but Auburn had actually unveiled that play against Georgia. And the fourth touchdown became the most famous example of the POP plays that are spreading throughout all levels of football.

Inside Zone Read + Hook

Like the play to Lutzenkirchen, it was the perfect play at the perfect time and it caught the defense sleeping. It wasn't a trick play, but it was the last card in Malzahn's hand and it was saved for the perfect time.

What does Malzahn have up his sleeve for the 2014 Iron Bowl? If Auburn comes prepared to play, this team can stand toe to toe with Alabama and the trick plays and onside kicks won't be necessary. Has Gus set up some tendencies so that he can exploit Nick Saban's responses to them? Does he have a new wrinkle or an altogether new play to spring on the Crimson Tide?

Despite what he said, part of me hopes he doesn't. It would make me sick to know that Auburn could have used something to its advantage against Texas A&M and especially Georgia and just didn't. Then again, beating Bama would be an awfully good medicine for those ill feelings. I guess we'll find out tomorrow just what this offense has been building towards. Just what that last card to be played is.