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Auburn in the Red Zone: Poor Play Calling or Poor Play Execution?

Why not both?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Four trips into the red zone. Six points. Just 1.5 points per trip despite Auburn moving the ball well between the 20s, much better and more consistently than earlier this season. The poor results in scoring position reminded some of similar results in last year's Iron Bowl. Eight trips. 29 points, or 3.6 points per trip. And that leads some to wondering if the red zone is Gus Malzahn's kryptonite.

One word.


Malzahn Red Zone Scoring

Click here for an interactive version. (Just don't mouse over the bottom dot in 2008.)

From 2008 to 2014, Malzahn never had a team ranked in the bottom half in points per red zone trip. The worst was in 2011. (Of course it was 2011.) All others were ranked 35th or higher, some much higher. I just don't buy that Malzahn's offense doesn't work inside the 20 yard line.

So what happened Saturday against Mississippi State?

Sean's Interception

On 3rd down, Auburn used a quick huddle, Sean went under center, and they ran the Snag concept with the quarterback rolling out.

Click here for the GIF

Snag Interception

The Bulldogs sent five pass rushers, but Peyton Barber was there to help. Unfortunately for him, he had two rushers coming his way. In situations when a pass blocker has to decide to block one and release the other, the blocker normally picks up the inside guy. If the quarterback is dropping back, the inside rusher has a more direct path to the passer and the outside rusher has to run around the pocket to reach him. It may even give the quarterback a chance to escape.

But Sean White was not dropping back on this play. He was sprinting to his right. If Barber had blocked the other pass rusher, the one to the inside would not have been able to reach White. Instead, White was in trouble almost immediately. And though two receivers put a defender in conflict momentarily, they were both covered by the time the quarterback was able to throw again.

White forced a throw that should not have been made and Auburn's first possession ended with zero points.

Power on the Goal Line

On its second trip inside the 20, Auburn ran its 2-back Power with Jet motion and six offensive linemen. The line and the H-back created a gap, Alex Kozan pulled and lead through, and Barber followed for seven yards and a 1st and goal from the 2 yard line.

Then this happened...

Click here for the GIF

Power Wrong Gap

Same players, same motion, same players, but a stouter defense and one really bad decision.

Mississippi State lined up with nine players in the box, but one stayed back to watch for the Jet Sweep and two others rushed up field to prevent the runner from bouncing out. That evened up the numbers and the right side of Auburn's line won. Kozan pulled around and followed Shon Coleman and Avery Young into the end zone. The path was wide open.

But Barber didn't follow. Instead, he ran to the left of the Center. Those linemen were doing a fine job of not allowing any penetration, but there was no running lane that direction, nor should Barber have expected one.

Sure, Auburn had a few more chances to get six points, but a possible misread on the zone read, a J-J-Jumbo Package TD called off because of a timeout, and a bad snap held it to a (missed) field goal attempt.

Naked Bootleg to the Boundary

Facing 3rd down inside the 10 yard line on its next red zone trip, Auburn once again went for the roll out pass, this time with play action away from the play and no lead blockers. A Naked Bootleg.

To be honest, I sorta kinda roll my eyes when I hear people complain about play calling. Part of that comes from knowing that if the play worked, it suddenly wouldn't be a bad play call. Another part comes from me knowing what I know and knowing what I don't know and that I don't know how to call plays.

But this play call baffles me.

Click here for the GIF

Naked to Boundary

I don't know why you would run a bootleg to the boundary. Folks don't like sweeps to the boundary, but there are good reasons to do it every now and then. A bootleg to the boundary? The field is just too small in that direction for anything to get open. See how running a similar play to the field gives the offense so much more to work with?

A Defensive Line Twist Blows Up Power

On first and goal in its fourth and final trip inside the 20, Auburn ran the old reliable Power play, but Mississippi State had a twist ready for them. Literally.

Click here for the GIF

Power vs Twist

On Power, the center's job is to block away from the play and plug the hole left by the pulling guard. The tackle to that side just uses the "pick and hinge" technique to prevent the defensive tackle from crashing down and making the tackle from behind. But this time, the defensive end and tackle executed a twist that perfectly countered what the center was trying to do.

At the snap, the DT slid outside, just where the center wanted him to go, but the DE came around over the top and the OT couldn't follow. No one was there to pick up the defensive end.

To make matters worse, something strange happened on the play side. The defensive line was playing very wide to that side. On Power, the play side tackle and guard block down away from the play and let the H-back kick out the defensive end. But with no one to their left, they immediately climbed up to the linebackers, and this left two defensive linemen for the H-back to block. At the very least, the left tackle should have put a hand on the DT to that side.

Instead, the H-back was forced to choose who to block and who to let through. He stuck to his normal assignment, the defensive end and left the tackle to be blocked by the pulling guard.

The pulling guard whiffed on this block, but you can't blame him. He was expecting to be the lead blocker for the back through the hole. That defender should have never been there.

And with that, Barber ran into the arms of two defensive linemen and Auburn's final red zone trip started off with no gain.


All off-season, the coaching staff thought they knew what they had. A very talented passer in Jeremy Johnson. A group of experienced, upper-classman receivers. Roc Thomas in the speedy, scat-back role and Jovon Robinson in the more every-down back role. An offense that would use four-receiver formations a lot and not rely on the young H-backs. A system that could use the passing game for short, consistent gains just as well as the running game, complemented by deep shots throughout the game.

That all fell apart pretty quickly. Now, in the middle of the season, Gus Malzahn is having to rebuild his offensive plan. A quarterback that will protect the ball. Peyton Barber in the hard-nosed bruiser role and Kerryon Johnson as the change up. The use of 2- and 3-back formations relying on solid H-back production. Basically, a heavy focus on the power running game. Unfortunately, this makes the offense overly reliant on young, inexperienced players.

But I saw progress Saturday night.

Similarly, fans (myself included) had expectations for this team. Double digit wins, a shot at a conference championship, a playoff berth. But it's clear we have to rebuild our expectations. We can't pout that we're not where we thought we would be. We can't be angry that the offense is inconsistent.

Disappointed? Sure.

It's suddenly a young team trying to iron out mistakes and find what it's good at in the middle of the season. Try to view this team as what it is now, not what you thought it would be.

Based on what I've heard and read lately from the Auburn fan base, I'm seeing progress.