During the long, long off-season, pundits wondered a few things about Gus Malzahn's Auburn offense. What makes it work so well? How will Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Jay Prosch be replaced? Will defensive coordinators find a way to stop it?
Those questions began to be answered last Saturday. The offense works so well because of Auburn's combination of execution and innovation. The loss of three major players was offset by using new formations to put new players in position to succeed. And the offense remains unstoppable because Malzahn isn't afraid to try something new.
I was out of town Sunday and Monday and had not re-watched the game with in a non-fist-pumping, non-teeth-clenching, non-heart-pounding manner, so I asked Twitter for suggestions about what to look for. Those suggestions, plus some other topical tweets, are included. It went pretty well, so let's do it again next week!
Still Using "New-Age" Packaged Plays
SBNationCFB tweeted this moments after Jeremy Johnson found Melvin Ray for a 49 yard touchdown.
Currently the most innovative offensive plays in football are the packaged plays, or plays with a run/pass option. Auburn dabbled with them last year, especially against Georgia and Alabama, but Malzahn wasted no time using them this season as the first touchdown of 2014 was the basically the same play as the last touchdown of the Iron Bowl.
As the play starts, the offensive line, H-back and running back run Inside Zone. With Nick Marshall at quarterback, the end man on the line of scrimmage would be read for a give/keep read and the corner would be a second read to determine a keep or a pass. With Jeremy Johnson, the end man read is less emphasized, but the corner is read as soon as the ball is snapped. On this play, Johnson sees the corner blitz, Melvin Ray finds space on the sideline, and Johnson delivers the ball before the defense can react. Only the safety has chance to limit the play, but Ray does a fine job of breaking the tackle.
Notice that the offensive line easily avoids being downfield and C.J. Uzomah's block doesn't extend past three yards either. A perfectly legal play.
The pass is probably an option more often than we realize, but if the corner is playing honest, there's no throw to make. The great thing about the play is that if the corner is playing honest, the zone run up the middle should be easier and that's just what this offense wants to do.
New Possibilities at H-back
@WarRoomEagle Could be interesting to look at how the offense changed without Jay Prosch.— The Franchise? (@TheFrayMovement) September 1, 2014
For the most part, Brandon Fulse did a fine job replacing Jay Prosch as the wrecking ball of the backfield. I didn't notice linebackers flying backwards or defensive ends being stonewalled like was so common with the Juggernaut, but Fulse's cut blocks consistently knocked defenders to the ground and allowed outside runs to reach their targets.
However, Fulse allowed a new aspect of the offense to shine. Particularly in the first half, Fulse ran routes downfield three or four times as a legitimate receiving threat. And when paired with C.J. Uzomah, Auburn showed a two tight end, single back formation, something not used much if at all last year.
Now, having seven big men on the line of scrimmage presents a significant run threat, but Auburn ran Four Verts out of the formation instead. (Maybe Gus and BERT aren't too different after all). Play action keeps the linebackers from properly trailing the tight ends and suddenly there are four deep threats and only three deep defenders. Johnson throws to Uzomah in the pocket between the linebacker and the safety and the tight end uses his height to reach the ball.
Fulse isn't the target here, but he easily could have been, and that threat made the deep zone defenders spread out and allow the completion. So that's just one aspect of the offense that should expand to better utilize the current personnel.
New 3rd Down Play Backfires
Uzomah said he had to do 20 up-downs for his missed block on one of the 3rd-and-1s— James Crepea (@JamesCrepea) September 2, 2014
I think this formation-play call combination was also new for Auburn, and it should have worked well against a big defense like Arkansas'. Instead, a blown assignment prevented a first down.
Auburn shows a lot of size and power to the right with both tackles lined up on that side. To the left of the center is a guard (Chad Slade), a tight end (C.J. Uzomah) and a receiver (Sammie Coates). Auburn runs Power to the right, so Slade pulls and gives the right side even more push. In fact, you can see that entire side of the defense get demolished as Quan Bray fakes the sweep and heads down field. Cameron Artis-Payne should have had a first down and a lot more.
But on the left side, Uzomah squeezed inside to plug the hole left by the pulling guard. I guess he should have known All-SEC center Reese Dismukes would handle that by himself, and once Coates was pulled outside, a defender easily reached the backfield before the CAP could get started. I wonder what Gus had to say about that?
New Emphasis on Midline Option
@WarRoomEagle how optioning off interior DL counters outside blitz to stop QB keep on zone read— Je Suis Un Pizza (@jesuisunpizza) September 1, 2014
Auburn used Midline Option last year, but only about three times and with very limited success. In the Arkansas game, the Tigers read an interior defender at least three times in the second half with plenty of success. In the traditional Midline Option, the running back and quarterback both run into the middle of the defense, but with Auburn's version, Artis-Payne runs outside and Marshall runs inside, much like the Inverted Veer, but without the Power blocking. (Thanks to more knowledgable folks than me on Twitter for the heads up.)
In fact, the read is as effective as a wham block. (Again, maybe Gus and BERT aren't so different after all.) In the end, two defenders are taken out of the play, the offensive line and tight end get second level blocks, and Marshall's speed gets him to the end zone.
I didn't see Arkansas use much more than a scrape exchange to contain the read-option game, so I don't think it was used as a constraint for blitzing corners. Instead, it seems it was used to help the the run game attack the middle of the defense while taking out one of the biggest defenders. Uzomah said yesterday that Auburn "knew that'd be there" so we may not see it much more, but it sure was effective.
Smoke Draw as a New Milk-the-Clock Run
@WarRoomEagle Auburn went smoke draw heavy late. Let me know if you see why (my recording cut out)— James Jones (@JamesJones_55) September 1, 2014
Though it was used a number of times throughout the game, Auburn used the Smoke Draw three times in a row to end the last scoring drive, plus once more to start the next. Draw plays are typically used to punish an aggressive pass rush, not close out a game, but Auburn used the Smoke Draw to get the finishing blow. How did that work?
To be honest, I'm really having a hard time coming up with the reason. With two high safeties and only six or seven men in the box, Arkansas lined up like they genuinely expected a pass. So maybe Malzahn was just taking what Arkansas was giving.
Another guess is that Auburn wanted to use Marshall as a decoy, but didn't want to actual expose him to much defensive pressure. A predetermined give from a read-option look could force a defender to follow Marshall and take himself out of the play, but perhaps that puts the quarterback in harm's way.
When Auburn runs Power, the quarterback often spins out of the backfield away from the play and rolls out of the pocket. This would be effective, but defenses haven't respected that motion in a while, and the end of this game was not the time for tendency busters.
So Auburn used the Smoke Draw. In one play, the linebackers are tentative because the linemen initially block like they would for a pass play. In another, a defensive lineman actually drops into coverage and is a total non-factor. But perhaps the biggest reason Auburn used the Smoke Draw at the end of the game was that the quarterback's decoy was effective and it took another defender out of position.