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Nerd’s Take: Another Wasted Opportunity

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Once again, Gus Malzahn didn’t have his offense ready to go against a good defense early in the season. Something we have seen plenty of before.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Clemson Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I was livid Saturday night. Once again, I saw an Auburn defense go out there and play their hearts out only to be let down by an offense that seemed to have no clue about what they wanted to do. For the second straight season, Auburn had no answer for Brent Venables’s outstanding front 7. If I were in a position to make changes, the offensive coaching staff would probably have gotten their walking papers the minute they left the locker room Saturday night.

However, I don’t have that kind of power (probably a good thing) and after rewatching the game, I don’t think things are as wrecked as they felt Saturday night. I am still incredibly frustrated with the results and Malzahn has a lot to prove over the coming weeks but there was some good buried in all that bad. Brief moments where protection held up, Stidham got the ball out in time and a WR made a tough catch. They were few and far between but those few plays should give the coaching staff a blueprint of what this offense can do in the future. Or at least I hope....

Total Offensive Failure

When you only compile 117 yds of offense, score no touchdowns, give up 11 sacks and allow 14 tackles for loss, then there isn’t just one thing that went wrong. From the gameplan, to playcalling, to execution, Auburn’s offense was a mess Saturday night. Too often, the Tigers ran against overloaded boxes or tried to use some sort of fake to open up 2 man routes. Auburn’s offensive tackles struggled mightily against an NFL calibre line and Auburn’s playcalling was all over the place. I won’t go into detail on those sacks as there are plenty of great breakdowns already for that from Justin Ferguson’s Film Room, to our own James Jones’s Remedial Film School and even SBNation Richard Johnson’s breakdown. Read those if you want to understand what the heck happened up front. Spoiler alert, everything.

There were moments though that give me hope. Play calls where Stidham was able to get the ball out quickly, the OL protected and a wide receiver got a chance to make a play. The plays are in the playbook, they just need to be called more consistently. I don’t want to spend too much time on the offense as there have been plenty written about it and we all know the issues. They are the same ones that have haunted Auburn the past two years. I did, however, want to show the few bright spots offensively I saw in my rewatch.

I still firmly believe the talent is there for this offense to be successful. It’s clear the Tigers have some serious work to do with the offensive line and Auburn’s coaching staff needs to once again do a better job at putting their guys in spots to be successful. Auburn has a lot to clean up on this side of the ball and if the Tigers want to have any shot at winning the SEC this year, they better do it fast.

One more thing, can we try and get Nate Craig-Myers the ball more than once a game please?

Steele’s Defense

Unfortunately, Auburn’s outstanding defensive performance Saturday night will probably be lost in the annals of Tiger football history due to the result of the game. But with all the gnashing of teeth (understandably) about the offense, I do think we need to spend some time giving the defense their due. They were outstanding against Clemson and I strongly suspect that 14 points will once again be Clemson’s lowest scoring output of the season.

For the most part, Steele’s not doing complicated stuff. That fact is one of the reasons Auburn’s defense is playing at such a high level. Everybody understands their assignments and that frees them up to play fast and attack.

Facing 2nd and 1, Auburn’s defense comes out in their base Nickel package (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DBs). Clemson is in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) and are running a read option to the boundary side. Auburn’s safeties read run quickly and come flying down to fill the alleys. Holland takes the dive forcing Bryant to keep it and then Stephen Roberts makes a spectacular open field tackle.

Marlon Davidson’s forced fumble in the 3rd quarter is another great example of how well coached this defense is by Steele.

Same personnel for both sides in this play except the tight end is lined up in his more traditional spot on the line of scrimmage. Clemson is running another read option look. Davidson comes flying off the edge, attacking the dive and forcing the fumble. But notice how Deshaun Davis fits around on the outside and is ready to make a tackle on the QB if he kept it. Then there’s Derrick Brown beating his man inside and being there ready to help make the tackle and Montavius Atkinson filling the C gap as well. This play was not going anywhere.

But my favorite thing about this defense continues to be Auburn’s 3rd and long Dime package that I talked about last week. The Tigers had just as much success using it against Clemson as they did against Georgia Southern. Getting off the field on 3rd down is crucial and Auburn’s done a great job of doing that this season, helped a lot by their ability to play aggressive in 3rd & long situations.

It’s man across the board for Auburn’s cornerbacks and a 2 high safety look to cover anything deep. Holland once again beats the RT with a nice rip and great speed. Bryant’s first reads are locked up and Holland’s pressure forces him to try and escape. Problem for him is Carlton Davis is waiting and that’s never a good thing for QBs on the run.

Steele isn’t afraid to bring the heat when needed as seen by this aggressive 1st & 10 call in the 4th quarter.

Auburn is in Cover 0, meaning there is no safety help. Every DB is on his own against his man. Both linebackers and the free safety are coming on the blitz. Atkinson comes unblocked around the edge and great coverage forces Bryant to throw this one away quickly. Steele trusts his DBs to hold up in man coverage and for most of the night they did just that.

Gone are Auburn defenses playing slow because they aren’t sure of their assignments. Steele had a reputation at Clemson for running too complex of schemes leaving his defenses flat footed trying to make the right reads instead of just playing football. That hasn’t been the case at Auburn. Steele’s group is fast, physical and very comfortable in this scheme allowing them to aggressively attack the offense all night long. Clemson landed a few counter punches, namely in the form of fades and QB runs, but for most of the night Auburn’s defense set the tone.

Jeff Holland Spotlight

One of Auburn’s biggest questions coming into the 2017 season was how they were going to replace last season’s premier pass rusher Carl Lawson. Through the first two games, that answer has been very clear: Jeff Holland.

Holland signed with Auburn in the 2015 recruiting class out of Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, FL. He was a 4* linebacker recruit and ranked #117 in the country by 247 Composite. But last yearm he switched to the Buck spot and became Auburn’s extra pass rusher in their “Rabbit” package. At about the Arkansas game in 2016, I thought the light bulb started to come on for Holland. Based off the first two games this season, it’s clear he’s ready to pick up where Lawson left off.

Clemson’s right tackle didn’t really fare much better than Auburn’s Saturday night, the difference was he wasn’t asked to pass protect for as many long developing routes like Auburn (imagine that, running quicker plays to offset an aggressive pass rush). But in those situations where Clemson did need bigger chunks of yardage, they often had no answer for Auburn’s pass rush specifically Holland.

It’s 3rd and long midway through the first quarter. Auburn breaks out that dime package I love so dearly. This is a pure speed rush. Holland is lined up in a wide 9 technique and just flat out beats the OT to the outside. He turns the corner in a hurry and meets Nick Coe at the QB.

Clemson’s RT struggled with Holland’s speed rush all night.

Here’s a good look at Holland’s pass rush. He flashes outstanding hands, swiping away the RTs punch and gets separation. He flattens around the corner and arrives just in time to disrupt the pass. Good thing too, as the broadcast crew highlighted a bust in AU’s secondary was going to leave Hunter Renfrow wide open for a TD.

It’s not just his work as a pass rusher that has been so impressive this year though. Holland has improved as a run defender as well, consistently taking on blocks and setting the edge. Also leave him unblocked at your own peril, he’s been excellent in both playing the back and the QB this year in read option looks.

Through just two games Holland has compiled 9 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 QBH, and a FF. Those numbers are good but they don’t really paint the full picture of how much of a force he has been for the Tigers. Auburn will need him to continue to be a tough matchup on the edge moving forward with some talented QBs coming down the pipeline (Drew Lock, Shea Patterson, Nick Fitzgerald). I am excited to watch this dude continue to be a nightmare for opposing QBs.

Is All Hope Lost?

No. Absolutely not. Anyone that tells you different should be ignored. Saturday night was a kick in the gut for sure, but despite that atrocious offense against the defending national champion on the road, Auburn only lost by 8. When you have a defense like Auburn does this year, you can never really count them out.

That’s not to say there aren’t major concerns. This offense is a mess right now. History should have told us that Auburn’s offense wouldn’t be ready for a road test against Clemson this early in the season. Malzahn, for whatever ridiculous reason, seems incapable of having an offense ready to go out the gates unless he returns most everybody (2014). But history also tells us that Malzahn eventually does find some success. The last two years have seen offenses that looked left for dead, come alive, only to derail again due to injuries. The one year injuries didn’t wreck things, Auburn won the SEC.

The schedule sets up perfectly for Auburn’s offense to find themselves before Death Valley part 2. These are the defenses Auburn has to face in the next four games (rankings are S&P+):

  • Mercer - FCS defense allowing 210 rushing yards per game
  • Missouri - 102nd
  • Mississippi State - 47th
  • Ole Miss - 58th

It’s vital that the Tigers figure out some sort of passing game that doesn’t get Stidham killed and gets the ball out to Auburn’s numerous playmakers at wide receiver. The offensive line might need shuffling or it just might need seasoning. Whatever the answers are this Auburn coaching staff better find them quick, otherwise Auburn is in danger of wasting another elite defense.

I have long been a Gus Malzahn supporter. I have been able to excuse away pass transgressions but at some point the excuses have to end and you have to produce. I am still cheering hard for him to figure this thing out because that’s what would be best for Auburn. But if he doesn’t, if we find ourselves staring at another 8-4 record with four straight losses to our two biggest rivals, well I think we know how that will end. Whether it’s playcalling, gameplanning, personnel or a new staff, changes will be coming to Auburn in the future, one way or another.

War Eagle!