Three interceptions... Jeremy Johnson threw three interceptions. Do you know which Auburn quarterback last threw three picks? Kiehl Frazier at Mississippi State in 2012. Was Jeremy Johnson's day in the Georgia Dome that bad?
There's a difference in trying to make a big play and trying to not get killed. There's a difference between trusting in your arm a little too much and hoping your pass will just work out. There's a difference in making a bad read on one play and making bad reads most of the game.
Frazier was once the quarterback of the future, but that future didn't pan out. Jeremy Johnson has been the quarterback of the future the last two years, and he also had a rough game, but based on the differences highlighted above, his future still looks bright to me.
To get a better idea of what Johnson can play like through the rest of the season, let's try to see what Jeremy saw on his best and worst plays. First, the worst.
Interception No.1: The Misread
To me, the first interception was the ugliest. It's as if Johnson meant to throw it to the other team. The only explanation I can find is that he simply misread the defense pre-snap and failed to adjust when he was clearly wrong.
Brandon Carlisle (@bc4_bc, former Auburn High WR and UAB DB and my twitter source for all things in the defensive backfield) mentioned that he thought Louisville was showing Cover 4, but actually ran a type of Cover 2. Rewatching the play, you can kind of see that. It's clearly a two-deep-safety defense, and with the corners playing back, you can see how Johnson would have expected four deep defenders, and therefore too few underneath players to cover the Curl and the Speed Out.
But instead, the corners stayed in the flats and the adjusters (nickelbacks/outside linebackers) stayed underneath. With only two deep defenders, there was plenty of coverage underneath.
And, yes, Duke was wide open down the middle matched up with a middle linebacker, but think about what Johnson was thinking. Cover 4 means the seam route down the middle is covered. Plus, a route like that is actually used more for clearing out defenders than providing a target for the passer. It can be thrown if the pre-snap alignment of the defense allows it, but it's not really part of the post-snap progression.
It was an ugly pick, but it was the only one that was caused by an actual misread of the defense.
Interception No.2: The Heave
Remember when I said Flood concepts are perfect against pure zone coverages? Guess what. They're mostly terrible against man coverages. Even worse when the offense keeps seven back to block three pass rushers, leaving just three receivers trying to get open against eight defenders.
Compare the gif below to this one. When it works, Y-Cross gets a receiver open between the short and long routes. When it doesn't, like below, it's because that intermediate pass is covered by a defender (or two) chasing him the whole way.
So what were Johnson's options here? I would have liked to have seen him take off to his right. When the receivers flooded the left side of the field, every defender followed with just one linebacker in dead center. He could have also just sailed it over the head of Marcus Davis in the flat. It was 1st and 10 after all.
Instead, Johnson decided to arm-punt and throw into triple coverage. A poor decision, but not a misunderstanding of the what the defense was doing. He simply relied on his own ability too much.
Interception No.3: The Desperation Throw
A few plays after a great touchdown pass was negated by a holding penalty and an unsportsmanlike penalty on the bench, Auburn faced 3rd and 19. What should have been a conservative play to set up a decent punt turned into Johnson again trying to do too much when nothing was there.
If there was any hope of actually converting such a long third down, the line had to give the quarterback time. Instead, they gave him less than three seconds. So with Johnson on the move, what did he see downfield? I think he saw the corner in front of Melvin Ray take a step his way. In a moment, Johnson thought he could pass the ball over this defender, but because he was off balance as he threw and that corner quickly recovered from a few steps upfield, the pass fell well short of Ray and into the hands of the opponent.
Though he wouldn't have gained 19 yards, Peyton Barber was wide open on the checkdown. I'm sure the Auburn coaches would have preferred to punt in that situation.
So, the only interception that truly bothers me is the first one where Johnson misread the defense and didn't adjust to reality. The second and third were cases of Johnson trying to force a play where there really wasn't one. Ill-advised, yes, but not something that will continue through the season. (We hope.)
Not every thing was bad though. In addition to some nice throws to keep drives alive, he did throw one touchdown pass and was a holding penalty away from another.
Touchdown Pass No.1: Hitch-n-Go
Ricardo Louis has a knack for getting open downfield. He also has a knack for making routine catches look difficult. He did both on this touchdown pass in the third quarter.
Auburn ran the Hitch-n-Go play that C.J. Uzomah ran so well. In a post-game radio interview, Louis explained that he ran a "3-cut" though he didn't expect the defender to bite. (I don't blame him for not saying "bearbutt" on the radio.) But when he stopped his route about seven yards downfield, two defenders chased after it. And because the safety came down to cover the inside Hitch, no one was left to defend against the rest of Louis' route.
The throw wasn't perfect, which made Louis' catch look a little off, but give credit to Johnson for getting it to him. Johnson was also interviewed right after the game and he explained that his rollout was not part of the play design. The defense forced him out of the pocket. Johnson showed that he can keep his eyes downfield and throw the ball well enough while on the run when he threw the ball over 40 yards for a Auburn's second offensive touchdown of the day.
You can hear Louis and Johnson talk about the play here (between the 5:55:00 and 6:00:00 marks).
Touchdown Pass No.2: Mills Concept, but Holding
The Mills concept is similar to the NCAA concept but with the Post and Dig coming from the same side of the field. The idea is for the safety to bite on the Dig so that the Post opens up behind him. Auburn ran the play to perfection except for one small detail.
The pass protection was set up so that the line would all shift to the left while the H-back and tailback would block to the right after showing play action. This is a common protection scheme in Auburn's offense. But in a moment of poor communication, Avery Young stepped on Braden Smith's foot, which prevented Smith from sliding over enough to block Louisville's nose tackle. As he fell to the ground, he grabbed the pass rusher and brought him down with him. A beautiful play was negated by one misstep.
As Tuco has pointed out, first games can give you false impressions. I don't want to take too much stock in what we saw from Johnson in this game. After all, you can't just throw out everything we've seen in the last two years. When Gus Malzahn says, "I think he was trying to force a few things, just trying to make some plays early on," I can buy that.
Look for Johnson to play a better game this Saturday. Not just because of the opponent, but because of a renewed focus on taking what the defense gives him. Will there be some big plays downfield? Sure, I hope so.
But I think I'll be nearly as excited to see him dump the ball off to checkdown receivers or throw it out of bounds if nothing is open. Plays like that help teams win games. The big plays will come. They don't have to be forced. Take what the defense gives you and keep possession of the ball, and good things will come.