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Nerd’s Take: How Auburn Won 3rd Down

Auburn took down another #1 ranked team this past Saturday, thanks in large part to their ability to dominate 3rd down.

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

Before I dive into the awesomeness that was Auburn’s Iron Bowl performance, I have to share the pregame video. I was unable to attend the Iron Bowl but saw this video come across my Twitter feed yesterday and was blown away by it. I can’t imagine what it was like to see this video live. Enjoy.

Now that you are properly hyped up, let’s take a closer look at how Auburn punched a ticket to the SEC Championship Game.

Attacking Jeremy Pruitt’s Defense

As you have probably read or heard by now, Jeremy Pruitt and Chip Lindsey are very familiar with each other. Saturday, it appears that familiarity proved more helpful to Lindsey than Pruitt, especially when it came to 3rd down.

The truth is Alabama’s defense accomplished what it wanted to on 1st & 2nd down most of the time. The Tide were dead set on not letting Kerryon Johnson dominate this game and were resolved to make Auburn drive the field by not giving up the big play over the top. That’s why Auburn came out attacking the perimeter with quick passes because the box was too crowded and Alabama was keeping one safety deep.

This was Auburn’s 2nd play of the game. Alabama has eight defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The overhang defender, #6 Hootie Jones, blitzes which means Stidham should throw this outside where Auburn has favorable numbers now. Stidham does a good job hesitating to clear a throwing lane and finds Ryan Davis who does Ryan Davis things and gets a first down.

Plays like this were used often, especially early in the game, as a way of loosening up this Alabama defense. You can see the result of plays like this later in the game when Bama defenders would be caught cheating outside, opening up running lanes for Kerryon Johnson.

Watch both Hootie Jones (#6) and Dylan Moses (#18) cheat outside with Ryan Davis on the bubble screen. All of a sudden, Auburn has some room inside for the run game and Kerryon can pick up a nice gain on first down.

But this game was won on third down. Alabama’s strategy forced Auburn to have to consistently convert on 3rd down in order to score. That’s exactly what the Tigers did converting an impressive nine times on eighteen opportunities. That means half the time Auburn faced 3rd & whatever against this Alabama defense, they moved the sticks. What’s really crazy is a lot of times these situations were 3rd & 5 or greater.

Unlike earlier in the year, when it seemed like Stidham had zero short to intermediate options in the passing game, Auburn used quick passes over the middle to carve up this Alabama defense. Saturday, Lindsey dialed up crossing route after crossing route to allow his WRs (namely Ryan Davis) beat man coverage and let Stidham get the ball out before the blitz arrived.

It’s 3rd & 6 and Auburn is trying to keep their end of half drive alive. Pruitt sends both linebackers on the blitz leaving his secondary in man to man coverage with one safety over the top. Auburn lines Ryan Davis up behind Nate Craig-Myers to ensure he gets a free release. They did this all day, letting the more physical Craig-Myers fight off any press coverage which in turn would allow the quicker Davis to more easily get into his route.

In this case, Auburn is running an old Air Raid staple route, the Mesh. As CBS analyst Aaron Taylor noted the other day on Twitter, this route is often taught by having the crossing WRs high five each other. After giving Hastings five, Davis is wide open and Stidham hits him for the easy pickup. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a really good football player but there’s just no way he can cover that much ground so quickly. Auburn moves the chains and eventually gets a field goal to finish off the half.

Auburn used a few different concepts for similar results to beat the blitz.

In this one, Auburn busts back out the angle route which they first showcased against Texas A&M. However, Alabama sniffs it out and Davis gets destroyed by the safety. Will Hastings has better luck, dodging the forearm shiver by Mack Wilson and breaking open for the nice gain. Huge props to Kerryon Johnson on this play who puts a blitzing Ronnie Harrison on his butt, giving Stidham enough time to deliver this ball.

Auburn also found a matchup they really liked with one of Alabama’s defensive backs and exploited it all day. That was Ryan Davis against former walk on cornerback Levi Wallace. Wallace has an awesome story and has played well for the Tide this fall. But it’s clear the Auburn offensive braintrust saw something on film that made them believe he could not stick with Davis. That proved true time and time again Saturday.

There’s that mesh route again except as WarRoomEagle pointed out the other day, Davis leaves Hastings hanging. But what’s important about this play is the setup and use of pre snap motion. Auburn lines up Ryan Davis on the outside so they can get him matched up on Wallace. Davis then motions behind Nate Craig-Myers so he can get a clean release. The motion also signals to Stidham he has the man to man matchup he wanted because Wallace follows Davis. Ball is snapped, Davis makes a quick cut and beats Wallace across the field. A perfect pass lets Davis turn this into a big play.

It was very clear Auburn had a gameplan in place to attack this Jeremy Pruitt defense. The past two seasons, Alabama has been able to get pressure with just their front four. This season, due to injuries and losses to the NFL, the Tide have had to rely more on blitzing. Against lesser competition they could count on their cornerbacks to hold up in man coverage or the opposing QB to fail at consistently making the throws needed to convert. Both ended up not being the case against Auburn as Auburn wide receivers (mostly Ryan Davis) consistently were able to get enough separation from Alabama defensive backs and Jarrett Stidham was able to consistently deliver accurate passes under duress, that the vaunted Tide defense ended up surrendering over 400 yards of offense and 26 points.

Containing Jalen Hurts

But it wasn’t just the offense that won third down, it was the defense as well. While Auburn converted on 50% of their 3rd down opportunities, the Tide only went 3-11 with all three conversions happening in the 4th quarter. The big reason Auburn’s defense was able to consistently get Alabama off the field was their ability to consistently contain Jalen Hurts. Hurts is the engine of this Alabama offense and when the Tide need plays to be made, they typically turn to Hurts’s feet. However, heading into the 4th quarter, the star Tide quarterback had only 38 yards on the ground. Not coincidentally, Alabama was 0-6 on third down as well through three quarters.

So how was Auburn doing this? Disciplined pass rush.

For most of this season, Auburn’s DL has deployed a very aggressive pass rush. Against a dynamic runner like Hurts, Auburn elected to worry less about sacking him and more about slowly closing the pocket in on him and not allowing him to break free for long runs.

The play above is a great example. Auburn’s defensive ends come hard up field forcing Hurts up in the pocket. However, notice Auburn’s defensive tackles. Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson are just holding their ground and making sure Hurts doesn’t have an easy run lane up the middle. The result is Hurts is flushed from the pocket but Auburn has defenders in place to run him down and force the throw away. The Tigers defense did this all night. In fact, most of Hurts’s success on the ground in the 4th quarter came when Auburn abandoned the less aggressive pass rush and tried more stunts.

But it’s not just scrambling that Hurts can hurt you. Alabama loves to use designed QB runs but for the most part those failed too. Why? Because Auburn’s front four did a great job of shedding blocks all game long and making plays.

Alabama calls a QB draw and it looks like Hurts has a lane. However, Dontavius Russell fights inside, through a double team and then back outside to make the tackle. His path actually takes him into Bo Scarbrough before he can get downfield and block for Hurts. That leaves Tre Williams unblocked and he helps clean things up.

When you are able to control the line of scrimmage and get pressure with only four lineman, then it’s much easier for the back seven to take away all the passing options for the QB. Auburn did this most of the night as well.

This All-22 view beautifully shows how well coached this defense is this season. Everyone understands their responsibilities and quickly pickup their man. Jamel Dean passes of his WR to Tray Matthews who promptly sits him on his butt. Javaris Davis jumps the running back in the flat while Stephen Roberts picks up the man in the slot. Carlton Davis then locks his man down in press coverage. Where is Hurts supposed to throw the ball? It doesn’t take long for Auburn’s pass rush to break through and this play is over for the offense.

However, there were times that Alabama did have a good playcall or a chance to keep the chains moving. But consistently, Auburn’s defense would rise to the occasion and win the 1 on 1 battles. Here are two great examples.

I love this play for a number of reasons. First off, this is a former top 15 recruit who has played a ton of football matched up against a true freshman who was ranked as a low 3*. Hurts feels some pressure so elects to throw the fade to Ridley. It’s actually a well placed ball but Ridley can’t come down with it thanks to great coverage by Peters. The Muscle Shoals native has really come on in the last few weeks and has an incredibly bright future for the Tigers.

This might have been the play of the night for this defense. Alabama had just taken their first possession of the second half down the field in five plays for a terrifyingly easy score. Auburn responded with a field goal and now Alabama had a chance to build an eight point lead. Facing 3rd & 4, the Tide actually dial up a perfect play call. They bunch the WRs to the top and run mesh themselves. Almost all of Auburn’s defense is bunched up with the WRs so Hurts checks it down to a wide open Scarbrough in the flat. This looks like an easy first down but Stephen Roberts comes flying in from his safety position and makes just the most perfect tackle. The result is a 3 & out. Auburn would score a touchdown on their next possession to retake the lead.

According to Bill Connelly’s numbers, this was Auburn’s 2nd best defensive performance against a Power 5 opponent. When watching the tape, it’s hard not to agree. Against two of the best teams in the country with two of the most dominant offenses, the Tigers have held their own surrendering only 544 total yards and a total of 31 points against Georgia and Alabama. Meanwhile, this Auburn offense has compiled over 400 yards in both contests while scoring north of 20 each time. The Tigers are playing some of their best football right now and at the exact right moment and it’s been a ton of fun to watch.

Touchdown Auburn

Scoring touchdowns ain’t easy against Alabama but Auburn was able to find the endzone three times Saturday on their way to a 26-14 victory. Here are all three beautiful scores.

Gary Danielson was absolutely terrible calling this game. But he did have one shining moment when he correctly predicted that the jump pass was coming. Unfortunately for Alabama, their defense did not see it coming.

Auburn lines up in the wildcat and sends Kam Martin in motion. Typically this means Auburn is either gonna run power or inside zone and let Kerryon try and find a way into the endzone. This time, KJ steps up to line of scrimmage, jumps and delivers a perfect pass to Nate Craig-Myers. Johnson’s initial step sucks Rashaan Evans up while Martin’s motion freezes Levi Wallace. The result is 6 points for the Tigers and an early lead.

This is old fashioned, line it up and run it at em football. Auburn is on the one half yard line and looking to cap off a twelve play, five minute drive with six points. The Tigers line up in their unbalanced look and Kerryon Johnson just runs right behind the double team of Austin Golson and Darius James. The pair move Da’Ron Payne (who was Alabama’s best player Saturday) enough for Kerryon to power into the endzone giving Auburn the lead once again.

The final dagger came early in the 4th quarter and was delivered by the man of the hour, Jarrett Stidham. Auburn is running one of Malzahn’s favorite RPOs but it seems to me pretty early on Stidham planned on keeping this and finding the endzone. He beats Moses to the corner, turns up field and then powers in for the score. The man wasn’t listed as a dual threat QB coming out of high school for nothing.

SEC Championship Game

After the Texas A&M game, I wrote this about Auburn’s final approaching gauntlet.

But make no mistake, Auburn is perfectly capable of pulling this off. Jarrett Stidham’s arm allows Auburn to threaten both the Dawgs and Tide vertically. That in turn could open up some holes in the ground game. Georgia is as run heavy as it gets but boast a very efficient quarterback capable of taking what the defense gives them. However, he’s yet to prove he can go out there and beat you himself. I expect Auburn challenges him to do so. With both games being in Jordan-Hare and Auburn playing some of their best football, it’s hard to not have a little hope the Tigers can do it. At a minimum, it’s time Gus proves he can go out and win a big game. He’s got two opportunities to do just that.

I will be honest, I wanted to believe but I had a hard time seeing Auburn pulling it off. But that’s exactly what this team did. Auburn played their two best football games when they needed to most and now find themselves in Atlanta playing for another conference title.

I do not doubt that the Georgia Bulldogs will come ready to play this Saturday. Auburn not only whooped them on the field, we had a lot of fun doing it and you know that had to bother those kids. But as many like to point to the home field advantage and the UGA mistakes as big reasons why Auburn buried the Dawgs the first time, it’s up front where this game was won and will be won again. The Tigers dominated the line of scrimmage three weeks ago and held this vaunted UGA rushing attack to under 50 yards. I don’t know whether Kerryon will play or not and I have no doubt that UGA will have some offensive wrinkles ready to throw at us Saturday but this game will once again be won by the team that can consistently control the line of scrimmage. It’s going to take another dominant effort by Auburn’s front four and another efficient performance out of Jarrett Stidham to take the trophy home. We have seen this team do it twice now, once more and they get called champions.

War Eagle!!!