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Nerd’s Take: Offensive Pieces Clicking Into Place

Auburn’s offensive attack continues to improve and Saturday’s first half just might have been the best this offense has looked all season long.

Mississippi v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It was a rough start for this offense in the first three weeks of the season. They weren’t necessarily bad against Georgia Southern and Mercer but eight turnovers in those games resulted in closer scores longer than Auburn fans wanted to see. It also just wasn’t pretty. Then there was the trip east to Clemson where Auburn’s offense absolutely imploded and wasted another outstanding performance by their defense. When Mercer made it a 7 point game in the 4th quarter, Auburn fans were ready to not only jump off the Gus Bus but set it on fire and send it careening off a cliff.

But then there was that delightful trip to Columbia, MO. An oasis for ailing offenses. Kerryon Johnson returned to the lineup and Jarrett Stidham was set loose on that poor secondary. The result was a feel good beatdown and some confidence heading into what was supposed to be a battle with a hard nosed Mississippi State team.

That’s when things got really fun. Auburn’s offense was as explosive as ever with 7 plays combining for 361 yards of offense and two touchdowns. All the right buttons were being pressed at the right times and Mississippi State’s defense was noticeably off balance. But Saturday’s first half just might have been the best offensive half of football Auburn has played this season. The Tigers scored touchdowns on their first five drives, effectively ending this game before halftime. It was fun to watch. But more importantly it showed what this attack can look like when the majority of it’s weapons are healthy and being used properly. Let’s take a closer look.

Improved Rushing Attack

First off, Ole Miss’s defense is really bad. According to Bill Connelly’s numbers, S&P+ ranks the Rebel defense 91st in the country. That’s not very good. However, that doesn’t invalidate Saturday’s results as it wasn’t the result itself that was encouraging, but how and why Auburn’s rushing attack worked so well Saturday. To understand that, we need to understand what had been going wrong. I have talked about this a lot in previous weeks but just to refresh your memory, here’s the three main things that have been causing Auburn’s rushing attack problems.

1.) Overloaded boxes

2.) Offensive line unable to get to the 2nd level

3.) Injuries at running back

Saturday, all three of those problems were corrected and the result was a dominant rushing attack that compiled 326 yds on 31 carries resulting in a very nice average of 6.4 yards per carry.

Let’s start with the math component. Here’s what the typical box looked like against Clemson.

Auburn has six blockers against seven defenders. As you would expect, the one man unaccounted for in this play steps up and stops Pettway in the hole for a minimal game. Clemson’s defense rarely had more than one safety deep and were keying on Auburn’s inside run game and quick screens. Now compare that to Saturday.

For most of the game, Ole Miss kept both safeties back which left an even number in the box for Auburn’s offense. The Rebels have six defenders to Auburn’s six blockers and that opens up a nice hole for Kerryon Johnson to pop through for a big gain. Why did Ole Miss not have an extra defender in the box? Because they saw stuff like this the previous two weeks.

When you start threatening teams vertically like Auburn has done the past two weeks then you start backing those safeties out of the box. The result is more favorable numbers for your run game which in turn allows big plays on the ground to happen.

But it’s not just having better numbers, it’s also about executing your blocking scheme. Auburn’s offensive line has been a work in progress this season but there’s been a noticeable improvement in recent weeks. A big part of that has been Casey Dunn’s emergence at center allowing Austin Golson to move out to left tackle and keep Braden Smith inside at guard. A chemistry is starting to form which has allowed this offense to do a better job executing combo blocks which in turn open up bigger opportunities for Auburn’s running backs. Kerryon Johnson’s longest TD of the day is a great example of that improvement.

Auburn was not doing this very well early on in the season. A great example is against Mercer where Dunn doesn’t get off his man quick enough and the linebacker shoots through to blow up the outside zone.

As each week has passed, this Auburn offensive line has gotten better and better at getting to the second level resulting in an improved rushing attack.

Finally, you can have favorable numbers and great blocking but you still need someone to actually run the ball with authority. Kamryn Pettway was far from 100% against Clemson and Mercer and it showed. Kerryon Johnson has still been somewhat hobbled the last two weeks. However, Saturday gave us a glimpse at what this rushing attack could be with a healthy KJ.

Johnson is a complete back. He’s fast enough to beat defenses to the corner, quick enough to make guys miss and strong enough to run with power when needed. His biggest issue has and continues to be staying healthy. Hopefully, we can at least keep KJ at 90-95% rest of the year as he’s a very important part of Auburn’s resurgent offense.

Playing Under Duress

Speaking of getting better each week, Jarrett Stidham has come a long way from that first night in Jordan-Hare Stadium when he looked gun-shy and at times overwhelmed by the speed of the game. Each week he has improved but against Ole Miss I saw something that I have not seen much from Stidham this season, coolness under pressure.

Auburn is using slide protection here while Ole Miss is sending a blitz off the edge. Golson gets beat by a nice swim move and Horton is slow to help. Meanwhile, Kam Martin gets run over by the blitzer (might explain why AU been hesitant to play him this season) and all of a sudden Jarrett Stidham has two rushers in his face. However, he keeps his cool, spins out of the pocket, keeps his eyes down field and delivers a rocket to Darius Slayton who makes a sick catch.

Stidham was even creating plays when things weren’t there, something he hasn’t really done all season long.

All of Stidham’s options are well covered on this play. He gets good protection but recognizes he’s got to get out of the pocket before protection breaks down. Again, he keeps his eyes down field and Will Hastings does a great job of finding open space. Stidham delivers a very catchable ball while on the move and Auburn gets the first down.

It wasn’t just getting outside the pocket that was encouraging, it was also watching Stidham step up and deliver strikes even when a rusher was bearing down on him.

This is an incredibly important step in Jarrett Stidham’s development. This week the Tigers will face one of the better pass rushes in the SEC and still have teams like Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama on the schedule who can bring pressure as well. He won’t always have a clean pocket but if he can continue to learn when to buy time to get wide receivers open and when to step up in the pocket and deliver a strike before the pass rush arrives, this offense will be really tough to handle down the road.

About that 2nd Half

I know a lot of people are very frustrated with how that second half played out. I feel you, so was I. However, on rewatch I am not as angry at the coaching staff as I was Saturday. The 3rd quarter especially was fine as playcalling is concerned but it appeared Jarrett Stidham had checked out. After going 9 for 11 in the first half, Stidham was only 3 for 8 in the 3rd quarter and a lot of those were misfires or him trying to get way too much on a play instead of taking what the defense gave him. It should be a great teaching moment for the sophomore and hopefully next time he gets the chance to close a game out he takes full advantage.

The fourth quarter though should have been handled differently in my opinion. I really wish Auburn had set Malik Willis free and allowed him to run the offense. Not saying he needed to be chucking it deep but it could have been a great opportunity for him to get some good experience running the offense. He looked good in the few chances he got Saturday.

Finally, don’t worry about the defense. Ole Miss scored 13 points in garbage time against Auburn’s second and third team. The first team Ole Miss offense moved the ball pretty well at times against Auburn’s first team defense but that was because Kevin Steele was going to give them everything they wanted underneath. The Tigers ran a lot more zone and two high safety looks against the Rebels than they have all season long. Why? Because when Ole Miss has typically scored this season it’s been on long plays. When the field shortens, they actually become less dangerous as seen by the fact they rank 6th in offensive explosiveness but 87th in points per trip inside the 40 yard line. Auburn’s defensive game plan was to let them hit those quick routes all day if they wanted too but not allow them to have that big play over the top for a touchdown. It worked as Auburn’s first team defense held the Ole Miss offense to 10 points. Expect a return to a more aggressive scheme this week against LSU.

Life has changed for the good when we are mad about not beating a team by 30+ points instead of 20+ points.

Touchdown Auburn

Auburn’s fifth and final touchdown came with 6:38 left in the first half. That’s the definition of starting a game fast....

Auburn’s first touchdown comes on a sweep play with Johnson following Mike Horton outside. Great job by Darius James, Jalen Harris and Chandler Cox to seal their guys and open up a lot of green space for Johnson. KJ makes a nifty little move to beat the cornerback and it’s six points for Auburn.

Touchdown #2 is a lot of fun to watch. Ryan Davis has been more of a move the chains option for this offense rather than a HR hitter. On this play though you get to see his complete skillset. The play action one way sucks in most of the Ole Miss defenders. Austin Golson gets enough of the cornerback to spring Davis but it’s Casey Dunn’s block downfield that turns this play into a touchdown. Great job of getting to the defender but also not getting called for a hold. Some great downfield blocking and some nice moves by Ryan Davis finished the play off. It was nice to see one of these screens plays finally break a long touchdown.

This might have been the best play of the game. Ole Miss sends their free safety on a blitz which leaves Darius Slayton 1 on 1 with the cornerback. Kerryon Johnson picks up the blitzer and Jarrett Stidham drops a perfect ball into Slayton’s bread basket. Heck of a catch by Slayton and he does a great job getting that first foot down. Auburn has really missed him the past few weeks as he brings a bit more speed with his size and has an outstanding catch radius.

Bo Jackson, your thoughts?

We talked about the next touchdown above but here’s another angle of it.

The jet sweep motion pulls three defenders away from the play including the backside linebacker who overruns his gap. Darius James does an outstanding job coming off his double team and putting that poor linebacker on his butt. All Johnson sees is open field and scoots in for the easy score. This play shows how Auburn’s ability to attack teams horizontally and improvement in combo blocks is opening bigger holes for Johnson and company.

By this point, the Ole Miss defense was completely flustered. Auburn loads up the right side and for some reason the Rebels defense doesn’t adjust. The Tigers have superior numbers and it makes this an easy final touchdown for the offense. Auburn would try and run this later with Malik Miller but that time the Ole Miss cornerback was able to trip him up, not so much on this play.

Death Valley Part 2

Auburn has taken care of business the last three weeks and will now gear up for 3 straight road trips in the SEC. First up is a place Auburn has not had much success in, something I am sure you won’t hear mentioned much this week or in the broadcast...

This isn’t your typical LSU team. The Tigers were able to steal one in Gainesville but it wasn’t exactly a stellar performance. In fact, based on how the game played out they had a 24% win expectancy but a missed extra point proved the difference. It’s a team that is beat up on both of their lines and whose top two expected stars just haven’t looked right all year long. Everything about this game screams an Auburn victory.

But this is Baton Rouge where dumb things happen. I won’t for a second take this game for granted until the clock hits zero. Auburn should and honestly must win this game but I would not be shocked if that Bayou voo doo played tricks on us again. Here’s to hoping we put an end to this dumb streak and continue punishing LSU for letting the Mad Hatter go.

War Eagle!