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Nerd’s Take: Tigers Continue To Improve

Auburn’s offense was once again explosive and the defense smothering.

Mississippi State v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

I love beating Dan Mullen. I especially love beating him by 39 points a year after beating him by 24. The Tigers have outscored Mississippi State 87-24 over the past two seasons. That makes me happy. Why? Because I am one of those conspiracy theorist barners who believe Mullen played a very large role in some of the garbage that got leaked out during the Cam Newton scandal. True or not, I will always enjoy beating him.

Personal grudges aside, Saturday was also fun because this Auburn team continues to improve. Mississippi State is not a bad football team. In fact, they just might be the #3 team in the SEC West and they are going to win a lot more games than they lose moving forward. But it was clear they were not in the same class as this Auburn team. After a slow start, Auburn has begun building some serious momentum and looking stronger and stronger each week. There’s still plenty of football to be played but the Tigers are moving in the right direction.

Explosive Offense

I don’t know if I would call Auburn’s offense efficient Saturday. They weren’t chewing up yardage and piecing together first down after first down. In fact, Mississippi State had more first downs than Auburn (18-14) and ran WAY more plays (84-56) while being out gained by 160 yards and outscored by 39. How? Because if you aren’t going to be efficient, you better be explosive and Auburn’s offense was TNT Saturday night.

On 49 of Auburn’s total plays they gained 150 yards. That’s 3.1 yards per play which is ok. The other 7 plays? 361 yards!

  • 1st & 10 - 59 yd run by Kerryon Johnson
  • 3rd & 2 - 49 yd pass to Darius Slayton
  • 1st & 10 - 47 yd TD pass to Will Hastings
  • 1st & 10 - 57 yd pass to Eli Stove
  • 3rd & 3 - 30 yd run by Eli Stove
  • 3rd & 3 - 52 yd pass to Kyle Davis
  • 3rd & 1 - 67 yd TD run by Malik Willis

On every drive that Auburn had a play go for over 20 yards, they ended up scoring a touchdown. After watching last year’s offense methodically move up the field but get bogged down at times in the redzone, this new explosiveness is very much welcomed.

What was really interesting is WHEN these explosive plays happened. It was either on 1st & 10 or 3rd & short. Over the past couple of seasons it’s been pretty easy to know what exactly Auburn was going to do in these situations, run the ball. Saturday, Chip Lindsey blew up all those preconceived notions. Let’s look at those aggressive 3rd & short calls (sans TD, we will talk about that one later) that helped lead to touchdowns for this Auburn offense.

After the game, Gus Malzahn said they were looking for a Cover 0 look before dialing up this play. They got the look they wanted and the result as well. So far this season, 3rd & short has typically meant Auburn gets in the Wildcat, runs power and KJ finds enough room to get a 1st down. State expected that, I expected that and I am sure everyone in the stadium expected that but Auburn had something else dialed up. KJ gives it to Ryan Davis on the speed sweep who promptly tosses it back to Jarrett Stidham. By this time, Darius Slayton has blown by State’s secondary (seriously watch State’s safeties, they were completely fooled) and is wide open for the big play. Stidham under throws this pass but I will give him a bit of a break as QBs typically aren’t throwing 50+ yd passes after catching a toss back on a double reverse pass out of the Wildcat. A great job by Slayton hauling this one in and Auburn was in business.

After a 57 yd pass out of the endzone to Eli Stove gets the Tigers in better field position, Auburn finds themselves facing another 3rd & short. Auburn is in that unbalanced look again and Stidham heads under center. Stidham hands it off to Stove on the speed sweep who gets great blocking on the edge from Braden Smith, Nate Craig-Myers and Chander Cox. From there, Stove does the rest for the big pickup.

Finally, facing another 3rd & short in the 4th quarter, the Tigers go attack mode again. Typically with this look, Kyle Davis is lined up front to take on the CB as a blocker while Ryan Davis is stacked behind for the quick screen (AU scored on that type of player as we will see later). However, on this call Kyle Davis is stacked behind Ryan Davis. Ryan Davis has been Stidham’s favorite target to date and on this play draws both of the State defenders when attempting a quick slant route. That leaves Kyle Davis wide open on the fade route and Stidham hits him in stride. This play went against two tendencies:

1.) Auburn usually runs the ball on 3rd & short

2.) If Auburn passes the ball on 3rd & short it’s usually a quick pass to someone like Ryan Davis or Will Hastings.

Over the last two weeks, Lindsey has used Auburn’s past to whoop defenses in the present. Continuing to keep defenses off balanced and confused is crucial for this offense moving forward.

Elite Defense

Let’s just get this out on the table. Auburn’s defense is elite. It’s taken some time but I think those outside of Auburn, Alabama are starting to understand that fact. Only Auburn’s defense has not allowed more than 14 pts this season. They are still #1 in “Finishing Drives” meaning they give up the fewest amount of points per opponent’s trip inside the 40. They are ranked #5 overall according to S&P+ and are only allowing 13.8 points per game, good for 8th overall. Top to bottom, this is one of the best units Auburn has put on the field in some time. Each level of the defense is loaded with playmakers.

Holland continued his fast start Saturday bumping his sack total to 3.5 on the year. There could have been plenty more Saturday but give credit to Nick Fitzgerald, he was outstanding at getting the ball out before the pass rush arrived. However, it was only a matter of time before Sensei Mud got to the State QB. On this play, Dan Mullen’s squad tried the ole “pull a guard to block a speed rusher” trick that Auburn used with such great success last season against Clemson and LSU. Mississippi State ended up getting the same result as Auburn had previously as Holland made a nifty little move to dodge the punch of the pulling guard and get to Fitzgerald. Holland is quickly becoming one of the strongest forces off the edge in the SEC this year. Also, it was nice to be on the other end of this play this time.

One of my favorite plays of the game happened late in the second quarter. Mississippi State drove all the way to the one foot line and looked like they were about to march right in. Darrell Williams had other plans. Fitzgerald decides to keep it and looks to have an easy score. His TE is pulling around and looks like he’s going to square up Williams. Instead, Williams sees the puller and that Fitz is keeping the ball and attacks before he can be blocked. Williams makes about as perfect a tackle you can make a on 6’4” 220 lb+ QB barreling towards the endzone and stops him short of the goal line.

Finally, Auburn’s secondary had a standout performance defending 12 passes and coming down with 2 interceptions, one going for a touchdown. What stands out about this group is the combination of speed and physicality. They close fast and don’t often miss tackles in the open field. The above being a great example.

Jeremiah Dinson reads run and steps up to set the edge. However, State’s tight end kicks out and looks to be in perfect position to block Dinson. Not so fast... Dinson does a great job fighting off the block by dodging the initial punch and using his own hands to get separation. After that, he rips Fitz down in the open field turning what should have been a decent gain into nothing. This defense is so much fun to watch.

Touchdown Auburn

Once again, we have plenty of Auburn touchdowns to breakdown and dissect. This week, the defense makes the list and there’s even gasp a touchdown pass in the redzone. Scoring points is fun, keep doing it Auburn.

The Tigers first TD comes from an unbalanced look they love to trot out in short yardage situations. Prince Tega Wanogho (#98) checks in at LT while Austin Golson flips over to the right and Braden Smith moves outside. Auburn runs power to the strong side, something they typically have done from this formation. The motion pulls the linebacker out of the backside B-gap, while Casey Dunn seals his man off and Tega takes the safety. Great vision by KJ to see that hole pop open and make the cutback for the score.

This is a run pass option. Auburn is running split zone and a quick screen up top. They ran this same concept the first time they entered the redzone but Stidham gave it and it got stuffed. This time though, he pulls it and gets the ball out quickly to Ryan Davis. Kyle Davis does an excellent job blocking on the perimeter allowing R. Davis to use his quickness to get to the pylon. TD passes in the redzone, what is the dark magic?

I included two angles on this TD play because how could you not? Auburn gets the ball back in great field position so Chip Lindsey decides to take a shot. This is an interesting look they ran a few times where Chander Cox and Jalen Harris line up behind Kyle Davis and Will Hastings. Both Harris and Cox run quick outs while Hastings and Davis run deeper routes. Later in the game, Stidham hits Cox on the quick out for a nice pickup, something to watch moving forward.

Dropping back, Stidham looks to the left which moves the strongside safety away from the hashes. He then comes back to Will Hastings who embarrasses the free safety with a quick fake and hits Hastings on the wide open post route for a TD. I love everything about this play from the design, to the blocking, to the route running and of course the throw itself.

Two straight non Kerryon Johnson touchdowns is just wrong. So KJ rights that wrong on Auburn’s first drive of the 3rd quarter. Auburn is unbalanced once again and they are once again running power, this time with Stidham under center. Both Austin Golson and Braden Smith do a great job driving their men out of the play while Horton pulls around and cleans up the last defender. Very physical run by Johnson earns the Tigers 6 more points.

Look familiar? Auburn running power out of an unbalanced front. Big props to Wanogho, Dunn and James on this play. Tega seals the backside DT while Dunn and James reach the middle linebacker. Johnson surges over the top for his EIGTH touchdown in two games. Stop hogging all the points Kerryon.

The very next possession, disaster strikes for Mississippi State’s offense. This was a fail all around for State and Auburn just took advantage. The Dawgs motion into trips and run a rub route. Fitz has a wide open man but the throw is off target. However, the pass is still very catchable but instead careens off the wideout’s hands and into Javaris Davis’s. There’s only green space and teammates in front of Davis who races in for the score. After watching some missed pick 6 opportunities over the past few years, it was nice to see the defense convert on the opportunity.

Finally, Auburn brought on the backups and reserves to just run out the clock. They had different plans. Auburn is running everyone’s favorite read option play with Noah Igbinoghene motioning across the formation. The speed sweep draws one defender but it being 3rd & 1, State’s defense collapses inside expecting Willis to give the ball. However, Nick Mar... I mean Malik Willis pulls the ball and gets outside in a hurry. A perfectly timed stiff arm disposes of the one real threat and launches Willis into the open field. The speedy freshman then beats the last few State defenders to the endzone for his first career touchdowns. I highly doubt it’s his last in orange and blue.

Mr October

Gus Malzahn’s favorite month has arrived. As head coach at Auburn, Malzahn has compiled a 12-3 record in the month of October good for an 80% win percentage. That’s better than his 14-4 (78%) record in September and his frustrating 11-6 (65%) record in November. Long story short, it takes Malzahn a few weeks to figure out what he’s got but once he does, he starts rattling off wins.

Auburn has a tough road ahead of them even if the schedule doesn’t look as daunting as it did preseason. Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M have all struggled out the gates in varying forms this season but they still have talent. Any of those teams are capable of knocking the Tigers off if they don’t show up ready to play. The Tigers should be sitting at 8-1 heading into the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry but that’s far from a given. Over the next few weeks we will find out if this team is just good or capable of contending for an SEC title and more.

War Eagle!