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Why Auburn Chose to Pass Rather than Run

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Before Auburn felt like it had to pass, it felt like it couId pass. And it worked for a bit, until it didn't.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The first half was enjoyable. The defense wasn't being Fournette'd, instead holding the Tide to four field goals. The offense was moving the ball, especially with the running game. The Tigers had more rushing yards in the first half than Alabama had allowed in whole games on average. Sure, Daniel Carlson could have given us nine points instead of six and Blake Countess was this close to a pick six, but going into half time down only six points was a pleasant surprise.

But Auburn has had some curious third quarters this year, and it was no different in the Iron Bowl. Unfortunately, it carried over into the fourth and the game eventually got just out of reach.

Many have asked, "Where did the running game go? Why did we not hand it off to Jovon Robinson 20 times in the second half? Why did we get so pass happy?" I think there are several reasons, some better than others.

Because we should be able to take what the defense gives us

Late in the second quarter, Auburn faced 3rd and 2 from the Bama 31. The Tigers had already gained 44 yards to get there, all on the ground, so the offense tried to pass for the first down. Kerryon Johnson lined up wide, stacked in front of Ricardo Louis. Auburn used this technique earlier against Texas A&M, giving Jeremy Johnson an easy throw to the slant route, but this time, he decided to try his luck with a 30 yard pass.

Sure, Ricardo had some separation, and maybe the coaches asked Jeremy to take a shot, since the offense hasn't been great in the red zone this year, but the slant was wide open and all they needed was two yards. Regardless, choosing to pass instead of run wasn't a perplexing call in this case. It just didn't work.

Because it countered Bama's defensive adjustments

After the game, Gus Malzahn was asked why the running game disappeared in the second half. He said, "They were rolling an extra guy down on first down and they dared us to throw it. Early on, when they did that, we got some yards. In the second half, we had trouble when they rolled the extra guy down. That was really the biggest difference."

The tape agrees with Malzahn's assessment -- to an extent.

These are the three 1st down runs of the third quarter. Indeed, a safety did roll down into the box in the first and second plays. But notice that Peyton Barber gained five yards on the first one, a good gain if you ask me. The second rush was stopped behind the line of scrimmage, but I don't agree that the safety had anything to do with it.

Finally, Alabama kept both safeties back in the third play shown, but it was still stopped for a loss.

I think the loss of Avery Young hurt the run game more than anything. Robert Leff had to play right tackle which prevented Auburn from using its 6-man-line packages. Leff was fine in the running game, but notice which direction all three plays go. Left, away from the backup right tackle. Did Auburn purposely avoid running behind Leff? Did Alabama figure that out? Maybe.

The good news was that if Alabama was going to drop a safety, Auburn had a counter ready. In the fourth quarter, the offense used the same Seam-Wheel combo that got Barber a big gain in the first quarter. This time, with a safety coming down in response to jet motion, Ricardo found himself wide open along the hashmarks.

Because, hey, maybe we can pass

At this point, the coaches must have gained some trust in the quarterback and receivers as they decided to call three pass plays in a row. It didn't go well.

The first was looking for a big play, but it must have been covered downfield, so Jeremy threw to the checkdown, but he threw it without even turning his feet in the slightest. Incomplete.

The second was a nice play that got Ricardo open between zones in the defense along the sideline. It wasn't an easy throw, but Jeremy couldn't squeeze the ball in there. Incomplete.

Alabama predictably blitzed on the third. There were only three receivers, and no one got open quickly enough. Give Jeremy credit for dodging one sack before ultimately falling on his own. He must've forgotten to wear his special water cleats.

I'm sure the coaches would have like to have had that series back.

Because we're down by two scores

Down by nine with less than three minutes to go, Auburn was basically forced to pass. With no explosiveness in the run game, the Tigers couldn't afford to march down the field on the ground and expect there to be enough time for another score. So to the air it turned.

The frustrating part is that the plays were fine. Against Arkansas, Auburn used the Dig-Snag combo to play games with the Razorbacks' pattern matching defenses. The same concept was used multiple times in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl (including the last play of the previous GIF).

Auburn used the play again while facing 3rd and 7 on its last meaningful drive. Marcus Davis ran the snag to get the attention of the inside defender and then drag him out toward the sideline. This opened a passing lane for Melvin Ray's dig route downfield, who had plenty of separation from the corner defending him.

But Jeremy didn't deliver the ball to Ray in stride and Ray didn't haul in a difficult but catchable pass. A rhythm thing, I guess. Auburn ran the same exact play on 4th down too. And though the pass was better, the result was not. Ray dropped a pass that hit him in the numbers and the Auburn's upset bid was officially over.

So why did Auburn stop running again?

It's never just one thing, is it?

  • Some short throws were there for the taking.
  • Alabama was starting to shut down the run game after the loss of Young.
  • Alabama left itself vulnerable to certain pass plays.
  • The coaches lost their minds and called three straight pass plays.
  • Auburn was down two scores late.

I'll admit the lack of a running game in the second halves of games has been perplexing all season. Even more so when the few runs that are called don't get handed to Robinson. But that's what this season has been. Perplexing. So perplexing that a simple question like "why did we stop running the ball?" has at least five answers and probably a dozen more.

But it's not my job to answer these questions. It's Gus's job. And Rhett's. And Dameyune's. And everyone else on the coaching staff. They'll have some vacancies, some new players to fill them with, and about nine months to figure it out. I hope they do.