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Can Auburn Pass to Set Up the Run?

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The Auburn-LaTech game was unavailable for digital viewing until late last night, so there are no diagrams or gifs of that game. Instead, let's see what Mississippi State can teach us about LaState.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

What a fun few days it's been since Saturday. Auburn being 4-0 has some feeling great. Others are put off by the apparent problems in the running game. Some think high expectations are to blame for the feelings of disappointment, while others think stats comparing last year to this year are nearly meaningless.

So here comes WarRoom Eagle to set everybody straight. If you want to know if the offense is going to be okay, do this one weird trick. Watch the LSU game.

Yes, the offense has looked out of sorts the last two games, but it looked just fine against Arkansas and San Jose State. A road game on a Thursday night in Manhattan, Kansas against a top 20 team coached by a wizard is supposed to be ugly. And maybe the team was just flat against an obviously out-matched La Tech team.

But all excuses go out the window starting this Saturday against LSU. First, it's a home game. Second, getting up for this game won't be a problem since it's against the only team to beat Auburn in last year's regular season. Third, Les Miles may be wily, but he's not a wizard that can coach 'em up. And finally, we have evidence that a spread-to-run team with a mobile quarterback can give the LSU defense trouble. If Auburn scores like we think it can, all is well. If Auburn can't reach 21 points, something is wrong.

So how was Mississippi State able to move the ball against LSU? First, they used a lot of single-back and empty formations, which kept the defense from clogging up the run game. But instead of opening with the run, the Bulldogs used short, quick and easy throws to get the quarterback in a rhythm. Next, State called for throws downfield when the nickelback started playing the run. Finally, undermanned boxes made runs up the middle too easy.

Due to time constraints a distaste for celebrating other SEC teams' highlights, please accept the simple videos in lieu of annotated gifs this week.

Short, Quick, Easy Throws

The video above shows three of State's first 7 plays of the game. The Bulldogs opened with a pass to the flat a lot like Ricardo Louistouchdown against San Jose State. The next play was an easy pass to the outside. The slot receiver was covered by a deep safety, so the out route was open by at least five yards. The third pass was a screen, which takes the pressure off of the quarterback and relies on a dynamic receiver to make yards after the catch.

This is all stuff that we've seen Auburn do regularly. There is no reason that the Tigers can't do something similar. The question isn't whether Auburn has the ability to do it. The question is will Auburn be able to execute the plays successfully?

Downfield Passes

Of course State didn't pass the ball 15 times to start the game. The run was used as well and LSU was still strong enough up front to stop it. In fact, the Bayou Bengals started using a tactic that has given Auburn trouble this year: the nickelback run blitz.

State was backed up on their own two yard line to start their third drive and called for a quarterback run, but it was stopped by the nickelback for only a gain of two. A big sideline pass and a nice move by the running back got State into LSU territory, so, looking for their third big play in a row, the Bulldogs took advantage of the nickelback's assignment.

State had two stacked receivers to the left and the nickelback clearly had no intention of covering either one. Play action sent the running back his way and he stayed shallow to stuff the run and then to cover the flat. This meant the two stacked receivers were being defended man-to-man with the corner and safety.

The receivers stayed mostly single-file down the field and didn't show their intentions until the last moment possible. When the receiver in front ran the post inside, the safety could only trail behind him as he ran into the wide open middle of the field. Prescott hit him in stride and LSU knew it couldn't defend the pass one on one anymore.

Again, this is something Auburn should be able to accomplish. Kansas State dared Auburn to throw the ball by sending nickelbacks and safeties into the box at the last moment, and, while Auburn made them pay when it had to, hitting these types of passes early would have gone a long way toward helping the offense as a whole. Let's hope Nick Marshall and his receivers start the game strong.

Run the Dang Ball

On the next State possession, LSU knew it had to guard agains the pass, so it lined up with two deep safeties, three cornerbacks, and one nickelback/linebacker spreading out to cover the third receiver on the right. This left only four down linemen and one linebacker in the box. The five offensive linemen simply blocked the five defenders in front of them, the running back made a safety miss, and the Bulldogs flipped the field with one play.

State also used the quarterback as the run threat when LSU spread itself too thin. Early in the second half, the Bulldogs faced 3rd and 3, and LSU responded to an empty formation by putting everyone outside except for five pass rushers on the line. Once again, State's line did its job by handling the threats up front and Prescott did the rest by scooting through the middle of the defense.

As much trouble as the Auburn offensive line is or isn't having, they have to be able to "put a hat on a hat." Combo blocking and reaching the second level is something a dominant line does with ease. Simply running against a five-man box is something any SEC offensive line should be able to do. Any of the Auburn's back can make one guy miss in the open field, and Nick has proven to be a great runner up the middle when given the opportunity.

Last year, Auburn ran to open the pass. Heck, there were times when Auburn ran so that it could just run some more. But in the last two games, it looks like the run game needs some help getting started. Maybe the line just needs a little more live action to hit its stride. Maybe the run game will open up once the H-backs and receivers are willing get more physical on the edges. Or maybe, the quarterback and receivers will have to team up often enough to force defenses to back off, like Mississippi State did to LSU.