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Nerd’s Take: Survive and Advance

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It wasn’t pretty at times but Auburn took care of business Saturday setting up a top 10 Iron Bowl to finish the season.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

I highly doubt Saturday went the way this Auburn football team, Gus Malzahn and most of the Auburn fanbase imagined it going. Carrying a 14-7 lead into halftime over Louisiana-Monroe isn’t something that gets everyone fired up. But the Tigers came out in the 2nd half and put away the Warhawks like they should. Basically, your typical Auburn blowout.

The truth is though Auburn’s playoffs started sometime in the evening on October 14th after blowing a 20 point lead to LSU. From that point on, there were no second chances. Survive and advance became the reality. That’s exactly what this Auburn team has done and continues to do. It might not always be pretty but getting the victory is all that matters at this point in the season. Something Auburn has done for four straight weeks.

There isn’t a ton to breakdown from Saturday’s game. I was hoping we would get to see a full 2nd half of 2nd teamers but credit the Warhawks. They came in ready to play and forced Auburn to play their starters far longer than Auburn probably wanted. Still, we got to see some of the backups get some more snaps and even got another long Malik Willis run so it wasn’t a completely lost weekend.

Mr Consistent

There is one man I wanted to highlight this week. Dontavius Russell doesn’t always get the same buzz or hype as his partners on the defensive line. You are far more likely to hear the announcers discuss Jeff Holland, Marlon Davidson or Derrick Brown on the broadcast than Auburn’s three year starting defensive tackle. He’s just not a stat sheet stuffer or a flashy player. But the truth is he’s one of Auburn’s most solid and important players. He’s the guy eating up the double teams to free up his buddies to go make plays. He’s the guy often holding the point of the attack and keeping Auburn’s linebackers clean to make a tackle.

Gus Malzahn called him “Mr. Consistent” yesterday in his press conference. The past two weeks “Mr Dominant” might be the better name. Through the first nine games of the season, Russell had only one TFL and no sacks. Over the last two weeks he’s recorded 4.5 TFL, two sacks and forced a fumble. Not bad at all for a guy that doesn’t typically put up gaudy numbers.

So let’s give Mr. Consistent some love and highlight a few of his outstanding plays from Saturday.

Auburn has run a lot of 3 man fronts this year. They are in what appears to be their 3-4 Okie look (hard to tell from camera angle so might be off on that) with Russell lined up as an end to the far side. Russell explodes out of his stance and blows through the left tackle to make the play. Watch all three defensive lineman on this play. Just beautiful.

This play made me chuckle a bit. Russell comes up with the accidental tackle for loss. It’s hard to tell from this angle but I believe he’s lined up as a 3 technique which means he’s in between the guard and tackle. Low man wins and Russell shoves the LG back behind the line of scrimmage. As Russell is attempting to rip free he slams into the RB and ends up making the tackle. The ole “hip check” technique.

Again Auburn lines up in a 3 man okie front and Russell is at the strong side defensive end spot. The Tigers are sending a blitz so the left tackle peels off to get one of the blitzers leaving Russell one on one with the left guard. That does not go well for ULM. Russell smoothly side steps the LG and crashes into the ball carrier for a big loss. Derrick Brown whooped the right guard for good measure.

Touchdown Auburn

Another week, another multi touchdown game for the Tigers. Let’s relive every trip to paydirt last Saturday.

Auburn’s first touchdown comes on their new read option wrinkle. Stidham is reading the defensive end to the far side of the field. If he keeps his shoulders pointing towards the opposite endzone then Stidham gives it. If that DE turns his shoulder towards Stidham then he pulls it and dumps it off to Ryan Davis. In this case, the DE holds his ground so Stidham correctly gives it to Kerryon Johnson. Davis’s route takes the field safety out of the play. That leaves six Auburn blockers against five Warhawk defenders in the box. That leads to a big hole for KJ who breaks two tackles and powers into the endzone for the touchdown.

After messing around for most of the first half, Auburn’s offense woke up just before halftime ending a drive with this beautiful bomb. Darius Slayton just runs a go route and runs right by the ULM CB. Stidham gets great protection and throws a beautiful ball. Will Hastings’s route keeps the safety on the hash leaving Slayton in 1 on 1 coverage. Auburn’s new playmaker beautifully high points the football and comes down with the score. This new Stidham to Slayton connection has been a lot of fun to watch over the past few weeks.

I included the long run by Martin before the touchdown because it’s just so much fun to watch. The Tigers run power from their unbalanced set and Martin follows right behind Marquel Harrell who gets a nice block. Also great job by Nate Craig-Myers reaching the safety to help spring this play. There’s a hole just big enough for Martin to accelerate through and he’s off to the races. It’s crazy how quickly this dude can get to top speed. The very next play AU runs inside zone and Martin deftly dodges the one guy that could have stopped him and scores the touchdown.

Auburn’s third touchdown was the most encouraging play of the game. The Tigers go max protect and have two wide receivers running routes. Hastings is running a double move that gives him a bit of separation over the middle of the field but not enough for Stidham to uncork the bomb. Stidham’s other option is running a crossing route and is covered the whole way. In the past, this typically ended up with Stidham taking a sack or a minimal gain. However, this time Kam Martin leaks out of the backfield, Stidham extends the play with his feet and gets the ball out to Martin. After that it’s all #9. If Auburn wants to win any sort of championship this year, the Tigers are going to need to make plays like this against really good defenses.

After a Jarrett Stidham fumble on the one yard line and a bad luck pass interefence call on third down, I was thoroughly annoyed with how this game was ending. It appeared Auburn was destined to keep this game close enough that we wouldn’t get to see any of Malik Willis. Then Tadarian Moultry and Nick Ruffin took care of business. It’s important to note that this interception only happens because TD gets great pressure on the QB forcing a bad throw. Ruffin does a great job picking the ball off but does an even better job turning this into 6 points. I mean just look at that stiff arm.

Had to throw in the long Malik Willis run before Auburn’s final touchdown. Auburn’s freshman quarterback seems to be a big play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball. After setting Auburn up at the goaline, Malik Miller finishes the job with a powerful run. Seriously, this dude trucked at least 2 Warhawks at the goaline. He’s a strong man.

The Iron Bowl

So here we are once again. While the rest of the world crows about either wanting or not wanting Bama, Auburn gets em no matter what each and every season. This year, for the first time since 2014, Auburn isn’t asking their backup QB to try and beat the #1 team in the nation. The Tigers bring an explosive offense to face off against a banged up but still really good Alabama defense. Typically, if Malzahn has a quarterback he trusts, he makes things frustrating for Nick Saban.

I have no doubt that Jordan-Hare will be rocking once again Saturday. Auburn has welcomed one #1 ranked rival into their home this season only to send them out battered and bruised and ranked #1 no more. The Tigers will hope to do the same again this week. I fully expect another outstanding performance from the Auburn defense. I also expect life to be difficult in between the tackles for the Tigers’ rushing attack even if the Tide’s linebackers aren’t 100% healthy. To me this game will come down to the quarterbacks. Can Auburn tackle Jalen Hurts in space? Can Alabama pressure Stidham enough to prevent the deep bombs? Whichever QB has the bigger day, that team will win.

Auburn passed their first of possible three tests with flying colors. Exam #2 looks to be even tougher. But if there’s any team that can complete this ridiclous finish, then it’s this one. A truly elite defense paired with an explosive offense makes Auburn a team that can be tough to handle. An Iron Bowl to close out the season between two top 10 teams deciding the SEC West and probably the SEC Champion as well? Wouldn’t have it any other way....

War Eagle!