Almost five days have passed since the close win over the Kansas State Wildcats, so lots has been said, thought, written and tweeted about the game. Suddenly, Auburn fans feel pretty good about the defense or at least the ability to stop the run, but when a Gus Malzahn-coached team isn't near the top of the offensive rankings, worry starts to creep in.
With my fan glasses on Thursday night, I just saw run after run after run go next to nowhere while passes either sailed past or the through the hands of open receivers. By the time I got to rewatch the game with my amateur analyst glasses on, I had convinced myself that Kansas State was using some aggressive front to sell out against the run and dare Auburn to throw. That's exactly how Virginia Tech took down Ohio State a few weeks ago.
But, no. KSU usually had two deep safeties, and either six or seven defenders in the box, depending on what the slot defender was doing. Auburn should be able to run on six- and seven-man boxes. So what did the Wildcats do to limit the Tigers' ground game so much?
- They showed a six-man box out of a 4-2-5 look. This invited Auburn to run the ball, even from a single back formation, as it used much of the first half.
- Either the nickelback would dart into the box before the snap or one of the safeties would crash down to the line of scrimmage as the play began. This gave KSU the numbers advantage.
- The last-second shifts also spooked the offense into changing the play well into the play clock, which took Auburn out its rhythm and prevented any Hurry-Up.
- The defensive linemen did their best to jam up the middle of the line and spill the run, or force the ball carrier to find room outside, usually right into the arms of that nickelback or safety.
- This left the KSU secondary a little vulnerable, so it gave lots of space to the receivers and relied on sure tackling and Auburn's inability to complete enough passes to sustain a drive.
- In both zone and gap runs, Auburn relies on combo blocks from its offensive linemen before reaching the second level. Too often, the double teams were held too long and the linebackers were free to make tackles.
- When blocking on the perimeter, H-backs and receivers have to block speedy players and keep them from shedding those blocks. Instead, Kansas State defensive backs frequently shot past those blocks entirely.
- Finally, the passing game couldn't take the pressure off of the run game because either Nick Marshall made an errant throw, the pass was dropped by the receiver, or the offensive line couldn't prevent the defense from batting the pass at the line of scrimmage.
Last year, Auburn scored 68 offensive touchdowns and a lot of those were built on big plays. Those touchdown drives averaged 14.7 yards per play and over a third of the time, the Tigers scored before reaching the red zone. Against Kansas State, Auburn couldn't get those big plays and score fast. The Wildcats' tactics prevented explosive plays and Auburn couldn't recover from mistakes.
Until the end of the third quarter, that is. Kansas State used the same plan. Auburn still didn't execute as well as they could have. But Nick Marshall and company finally started to convert third downs and eked out a 15-play drive for what turned out to be the winning score.
Video of the drive can be found here.
Play 1: Nick Marshall rush for 2 yards
Auburn starts the possession at its own 20 yard line and runs the Inverted Veer, but with no read defender, it may have been a predetermined keep for the quarterback. Regardless, the right side of the line gets absolutely no push, the pulling guard has no lane to block through, and Marshall has to bounce outside to find any running room. And since four defensive linemen absorbed all five offensive line blocks, the Wildcat linebackers were free to pursue and make the tackle.
Play 2: Nick Marshall throws incomplete to Sammie Coates
As I wrote before this game, the wide receivers have played a big role in Marshall's struggles in the passing game and that trend continued in Manhattan. Coates has a four yard cushion when the ball hits him in the hands, but it falls straight to the ground. A potential third and short turns into a difficult third and eight and Auburn is at risk of a three and out.
Play 3: Nick Marshall throws complete to Sammie Coates for 12 yards
Malzahn goes right back to Coates on another comeback route and this time he makes the catch. The line did a nice job picking up the five-man blitz as well, though the ball was out very quickly.
Play 4: CAP rushes for 2 yards
Auburn runs Inside Zone and Chad Slade and Reese Dismukes double team the 1-tech, but when Dismukes leaves for the second level, Slade and the defensive linemen fall to ground, making a road block rather than a hole to run through. So the cutback to the left was CAP's only option, but Marcus Davis mostly whiffs on his crack block. After dodging this second road block, a safety and cornerback fly to the ball carrier before a decent gain is made.
Play 5: Nick Marshall passes incomplete to Quan Bray
Tipped passes at the line plagued Auburn in this game. It had not been a problem in the past, but it happened over and over against Kansas State. On this play, Patrick Miller, the right tackle, didn't make contact with the pass rush until just as Marshall was throwing the ball. Especially in the quick game, the offense has to find a way to keep the defense's hands down. At least this one wasn't batted into the air for an interception.
Play 6: Nick Marshall passes complete to Ricardo Louis for 9 yards
So Auburn faces another third and long and Malzahn dials up a big play. The Tigers run the End Around + Statue of Liberty + Little Rock with two receivers running deep routes after all the fakes in the backfield. Instead of chucking the ball down field and hoping for another Miracle, Marshall shows some improvement by taking the check down to Ricardo Louis. And Louis, with his speed, scoots for nine yards and a first down before Kansas State knows what happened.
Play 7: Nick Marshall rushes for 17 yards
With a new set of downs, Auburn runs the Zone Read, perhaps with another called QB keep. Unlike Play 1 and 4 above, however, the offensive line reaches the second level plus Fulse's block seals the defensive end inside. With an effective block on the edge by Sammie Coates, the only defender left to make a play is the deep safety. Marshall draws him downfield by running straight into the alley before cutting outside of Coates' block to gain 17 yards, possibly the best run of the game.
Play 8: Cameron Artis-Payne rushes for 6 yards
Auburn sticks with the zone read and reads the blitzing nickelback. He is clearly taking the quarterback, so CAP takes the handoff, but he is again forced to cut the run back, just like on play 4. This allows the read defender to get back into the game and make the tackle, though the play did gain six yards.
Play 9: Cameron Artis-Payne rushes for 3 yards
A safety creeps down into the box just as Auburn begins to run Power and CAP has nowhere to go. Otherwise, this is a well-blocked play. Just a great defensive call by the Wildcats to force another third down.
Play 10: Cameron Artis-Payne rushes for 2 yards
This third down is much more manageable than the last, so Artis-Payne, ignores the block of the pulling guard and dives into the line when he saw the opportunity. In this case, a two yard gain is okay.
Play 11: Cameron Artis-Payne rushes for 2 yards
Auburn uses an offset tackle formation and runs Power again, but with jet motion through the backfield to draw some defenders out of the box. This time, the right side of the line gets good blocks and reaches the second level, but Reese Dismukes is unable to hold his block and the Wildcats force CAP to bounce outside again. The sweep motion did its job as two defenders are waiting outside for Quan Bray, but it played right into Kansas State's hands as those two defenders were in perfect position to stop the run once it bounced outside.
Play 12: Corey Grant rushes for 1 yard
This play relies heavily on misdirection, but because of the Wildcats' discipline (or lack of respect for the passing game) it didn't pan out. Marshall fakes a hand off up the middle, gives the ball to Corey Grant on an end around and then fakes looking downfield to throw. The defensive end is left unblocked, but since he can't see where the ball is going, he just stands there and has no effect on the play initially.
The cornerback to the left is also left unblocked and the idea is that he will follow his receiver to the middle of the field, but number 7 doesn't buy it. This puts Brandon Fulse in the position of having to block two players. At the last moment, he tries to take the outside guy and misses, which makes him look bad, but this was a no-win situation.
Play 13: Nick Marshall passes complete to D'haquille Williams for 12 yards
So, on yet another third down, Auburn goes back to the air. This time the offensive line prevents any tipped passes by cut blocking two defenders to the side of the quick throw, an adjustment Brent Grimes made at halftime (though it clearly wasn't used on play 5 above).
Meanwhile, Duke Williams showed how to shed a defender just by running a route. With his first few steps, Duke leans outside and the cornerback opens his hips to the sideline, hoping to stay with the receiver down field. Then Williams takes a few steps straight down field before cutting inside on the slant. Quan Bray's route drew the nickelback inside, so there was plenty of room to make the easy catch for a crucial first down.
Play 14: Cameron Artis-Payne rushes for 3 yards
Auburn runs the zone read again and Marshall gives to Artis-Payne. But, once again, a defensive lineman is able to crash inside and spill the run, this time against Avery Young. The read defender is able to recover and makes a stop before any damage is done.
Play 15: Nick Marshall passes complete to D'haquile Williams for 9 yards and a touchdown
Before facing third down again, Malzahn wanted to take a shot at the end zone. Auburn lines up with three backs and a receiver to each side, so it was showing run, but on the right side of the formation, Duke had lots of field to work with. This time, the cornerback had outside leverage to start, so Duke had to force him inside. After about four yards, he looked to the middle of the field and took one step that direction. It was subtle, but it just enough to get past the defender. Marshall threw the ball with touch into the back of the end zone and Williams came down with the ball.
There was a lot that went wrong, plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of credit to go to the Wildcats, but when it was absolutely necessary, Auburn showed it could still get things done.