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Nerd’s Take: An Encouraging Offensive Performance

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A bad Arkansas defense was just what the doctor ordered for this Auburn offense after last week’s collapse.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

I apologize for my absence last week. It appears the 2nd half collapse against LSU literally made me ill as the stomach bug hit the Nerd family hard. Part of me is glad I was sick as it spared me the sentence of having to rewatch that oh so familiar show. But as penance for missing last week, here’s a gif of Will Hastings breaking another SEC safety’s ankles. You are welcome.

As for this week, Auburn bounced back in a big way. It was a sloppy first half that saw some of the same issues we have seen all season long, namely inability to score touchdowns consistently in the redzone, but an uncharacteristic 3rd quarter outburst put the game away.

Look, nothing about Saturday changes or should change how you may or may not feel about Gus Malzahn. If there’s one thing we know Malzahn can do, it’s beat the pants off of teams with inferior talent. That’s a nice skill to have but to keep his job he needs to show he can go out and win games against teams of equal or more talent. That’s still left to be seen.

But don’t hand wave this win away either. Auburn had a rough 2nd quarter and things could have easily spiraled out of control considering last week’s collapse. Instead, Auburn came out of halftime on fire and did what they should do to a really bad Arkansas team. After a week of negativity, it’s big for this team’s psyche to head into the bye week with a dominating win. It’s clear Gus hasn’t lost the team and these guys still very much believe then can do big things. That’s important because things are about to get real tough, real fast.

Constraint Plays Does An Offense Good

That’s an obnoxious heading but you get the point....

One of Auburn’s biggest issues in both losses this season is their abandonment of constraint plays. Against Clemson and LSU, Auburn just kept trying to hammer the ball between the tackles and when they inevitably ended up in 3rd & long, chunk it deep. That made the offense predictable and easy to stop. A key part of any offensive attack is making the defense defend the whole field and keeping defenses off balance. Auburn did a much better job of that Saturday.

Here’s a great example.

Auburn’s running an inside zone read option play where Stidham is reading the weakside linebacker. Like most defenses have this season, the Arkansas defender comes crashing downhill to take down Pettway. However, unlike last week, Stidham reads the defender, pulls it and has plenty of open space for the first down.

The inside zone is one of AU’s bread and butter plays but you can’t expect to be able to run it over and over again without at least having a few counterpunches to punish over aggressive defenders. AU didn’t really do any such thing in the second half against LSU and the result was a stagnant offense. This week though Auburn punished Arkansas defenders when they overcommitted. The result was later those bread and butter plays opened back up in a big way.

This was on the very next drive. Auburn is again running the inside zone read option. Arkansas has six defenders in the box to Auburn’s five blockers but because the Tigers are reading that extra defender the numbers are even. Notice how this time that read player doesn’t come crashing in but instead plays Stidham. So Stidham gives it to Pettway and Auburn’s OL takes care of business getting Bubba to the second level. And when Bubba gets to the 2nd level, good things happen.

Auburn kept Arkansas off balance most of the night and it resulted in over 600 yards of offense. That’s an encouraging improvement. But I need to see this offense attack more talented defenses in the same way before I can truly believe this offense has turned a corner. The month of November will give us a clear answer to this question but seeing some of the tweaks Saturday night has me a bit more hopeful for the future. Still very cautious but a tad more hopeful than I was a week before.

Sack Party

I will be honest, I fully expected the defense to take a step back this season. I still thought they would be a top 25 group but I didn’t think they would be as good as they were last season. The main reason being the losses up front. I thought Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson would leave holes too big for Auburn to fill immediately. I expected the pass rush to take a step back, resulting in a less disruptive defense.

Boy was I wrong.

Honestly, this defense has been BETTER than last year’s outstanding group and a lot of that is because of the pass rush. Jeff Holland has lit the world on fire and I would be shocked if he didn’t hear his name called early in the upcoming NFL Draft. But it’s not just Holland. Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe and Dontavius Russell have all helped make opposing quarterback’s lives miserable. In return, that has allowed Auburn to be aggressive on the backend and has resulted in an absurd number of 3 & outs and an overall dominant defense.

All of that was on display Saturday night as the Tigers racked up six (really seven) sacks. Here’s a breakdown of everyone of them.

Arkansas wants to run an RPO here but life happens too fast for Cole Kelley. He reads Jeremiah Dinson coming in on the blitz and pulls the ball to throw it. However, he looks right first to a slant route that is locked down by Jamel Dean. When he looks back left it’s too late as Dinson has arrived and makes an impressive open field tackle. If he had missed, it wouldn’t have mattered as Jeff Holland was there to clean up.

This actually ended up not going down as a sack because Frank Ragnow (possibly the best center in the country) was called for holding. The holding didn’t matter to Andrew Williams though... Williams is lined up at the nose on this play and does a great job of getting his hands inside of Ragnow and pulling the Arkansas center off balance. He basically has him beat on that first move so Ragnow just clings to Williams’s jersey hoping to save the quarterback. Doesn’t work as Williams pulls through and gets to Kelley anyways. Auburn would accept the holding penalty removing the sack from the box score but I thought we should give it some love anyway.

Auburn is in their dangerous Dime package on this play and line Derrick Brown up on the outside. Holland is at DT but Auburn is running a stunt where Holland loops around outside while Brown slants inside. The stunt works as Holland breaks free and puts pressure on Kelley. Nick Coe is coming around the other side as well so the big Arkansas QB attempts to step up in the pocket. Bad move. Brown is doing whatever he wants with the right tackle and when he sees Kelley step up, he disengages with the blocker and sacks Kelley. Brown also does good job of swiping the ball out of Kelley’s hands as well but Darrell Williams can’t scoop it up.

Once again Arkansas is facing a 3rd & long which means the Tigers are in their Dime look. This time they are bringing some serious pressure as both Deshaun Davis and Jeremiah Dinson come on the blitz. Auburn sends more rushers on the right side than Arkansas can block and disaster strikes for the Hogs. Dinson gets initial pressure which forces Kelley up in the pocket but Holland tosses aside his blocker at same time Davidson busts free. The two meet at the QB and it’s another sack for the defense. Watch Davidson on this play, he tosses aside a pretty big dude with ease and gets held but it ends up not mattering.

This time Auburn’s in a 3-4 Okie front with Jeff Holland lined up as an OLB to the top of the screen. Arkansas elects to try and block him with a fullback. That goes about as well as you would expect as Holland easily swipes him away, turns the corner and then literally snatches the ball from Kelley’s hand. Arkansas had absolutely no answer for #4 Saturday night.

Auburn is in a 3-3-5 nickel look on this play. Moultry is in at Buck with Nick Coe playing at the end beside him. Credit the coverage for locking down all of Kelley’s options which causes him to try and pull the ball down and escape the pocket. Moultry and Coe weren’t having any of it. Moultry does a great job using his hands to get off the block and make the tackle. Nick Coe is also in full control of his blocker as well and helps finish off the play. Watch that sick little swim move by Andrew Williams at the other end spot as well. Auburn has so many weapons on this front four.

The final sack is a simple bust by the Arkansas offensive line. Auburn is once again in a 3-4 front and Arkansas elects to just not block Big Kat Bryant. That’s not a good idea. The talented young freshman has a free shot at the QB and takes Kelley down for the last sack of the night. It’s hard not to be excited about the future of this defensive line watching true freshmen like Moultry and Bryant get sacks Saturday night. It’s also scary to think Nick Coe is only a redshirt freshman...

Touchdown Auburn

Touchdowns were back on the menu this week as the Tigers piled up over 600 yds of offense and 52 points. Let’s relive every wonderful trip to paydirt.

The first touchdown is a great representation of how Arkansas’s season has gone defensively. The Hogs deploy a not often used 2-3-4 scheme where one of the ends suffers a horrible knee injury leaving him writhing in pain on the ground. Auburn runs the inside zone read and the one Hog defender that decides to play crashes in on Kerryon Johnson. Stidham pulls it and finds plenty of open space on his way into the endzone.

Auburn has run this play a few times at the goaline this season and honestly how teams don’t know this is coming after a sugar huddle continues to baffle me. Either way, this goes for 6 thanks in large part to a block by Nate Craig-Myers that results in two Hogs hitting the ground. Ryan Davis has a nice block on the edge as well, Chandler Cox seals the outside and Kerryon Johnson beats the last man to the endzone. Touchdown Tigers.

Kamryn Pettway’s first touchdown of the night is a powerful 2 yard run. The right side of Auburn’s offensive line, including two tight ends, just blows away the Arkansas defensive front and Pettway powers through the one unblocked Hog. Welcome back Bubba.

We talked about this touchdown earlier but due to the severe lack of Kamryn Pettway touchdowns this season, here it is again. Bubba still doesn’t look 100% but he looks healthy enough to be a handful in November.

After a Cole Kelley fumble, Auburn stays in attack mode. The Tigers wanted to run this play earlier in the game but a timeout was called before the play. So after a sudden change, Chip Lindsey decides to try it again and it works to perfection. The buck sweep motion one way gets most of the Arkansas defense moving one way. Ryan Davis on the reverse action draws in the rest of the defense while Darius Slayton’s deliberately lazy route encourages the cornerback to peak inside and Slayton blows right by him. I don’t think you could have asked for a better throw by Ryan Davis and that’s why he’s the 3rd string quarterback. Great playcall, great execution.

Pettway’s final score might have been his best run of the night. Auburn is running split zone and the flow of the blockers draw most of the Hog defenders inside. Bubba sees this and bounces it outside, stiff arming an Arkansas defender on the way, and busts free for the touchdown. Pettway’s foot injury really hampered his ability to bounce things outside earlier this season but you can see what he’s capable of doing on this play. He killed defenses with runs like this last year and Auburn would love to have more of this in November.

This is Devan Barrett’s first touchdown of his career and I feel safe in saying that it’s probably far from his last one. It’s Malik Willis’s first passing touchdown as well though I think we can all agree his toss to Griffin King against Missouri really was the first one, rules be damned. It’s just a quick little touch pass to Barrett on the jet sweep. He gets a great block on the edge and trots in untouched for the touchdown. Excited about a future offensive attack that features Malik Willis and Devan Barrett in the backfield.

November, November

Malzahn’s old nemisis is here once again. While October is typically the best month of the season for Malzhan, November is usually when things fall apart. After two wild wins to finish the year in 2013, November has become a black hole for promising Tiger teams. There was the collapse in 2014 that kept a very talented team from repeating as SEC champions. In 2015, Auburn let a bad Georgia team come into Jordan-Hare Stadium and beat a very average Auburn team. Finally, last season the Tigers almost suffered an embarassing loss at home to Vanderbilt only for the injury bug to strike leading to a crap show in Athens and a hopeless peformance in Tuscaloosa.

It’s pretty simple for Malzahn this year, he has to win in November to keep his job. I don’t know the exact number but I know it’s more than 1. If Malzahn goes 2-2 and finishes the season 8-4, it could come down to how he lost. 1-3 guarantees he’s out the door while 3-1 should mean safety for another year. But 4-0 means AU can still do something special. And here’s the catch, this team is very capable of going 4-0. Auburn has more talent than A&M and equal talent to Georgia. They have the pieces to beat Alabama with a strong armed QB, some playmakers on the outside and a disruptive defense. But it’s up to this coaching staff to do something they have not done well for three and half years now, put the team in a position to be successful.

November could be a month to remember for Auburn fans or it could be another depressing repeat of the previous 3 seasons. Once again, Malzahn has a team with talent in a position to play for an SEC Championship in November but he has to prove he can get it done. It’s past time he got it done.

War Eagle!