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Nerd’s Take: Breaking Down Auburn’s Dominating 2017 Debut

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The Tigers took care of business to start the season, here’s a few things that jumped out to me when rewatching Auburn’s victory.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

This is late, I apologize for that as I know we are focusing now on our next opponent. However, I was out of town all weekend and only got a chance to rewatch the game last night so this is being posted much later in the week than I plan to in the future. There's been a lot of great breakdowns from Justin Ferguson's always marvelous "Film Room" to our own James Jones's rewatch that you should definitely check out. I wanted to highlight a few more things from last Saturday night's dominating victory.

Credit Georgia Southern’s Defensive Gameplan

I don't notice a ton during the game. My focus is solely on the result of the play more than anything going on schematically. I wish I could do a better job of picking up on that stuff during the game but my fandom takes over and all I worry about is whether or not AU is winning. That's why going back to rewatch games is so important for me because it let's me take a step back and more objectively break things down.

Something that jumped out really early is that Georgia Southern's Defensive Coordinator had an outstanding gameplan for defending Auburn's new RPO looks, specifically when Auburn was in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 H-Back, 3 WRs). It came down to simple math really.

This was on the first drive of the game. Auburn comes out in 11 personnel and Georgia Southern counters in their base 4-3 personnel (four defensive lineman, 3 linebackers). However, the Eagles make a very important pre snap shift. The SAM backer (outside linebacker to the field) is cheating outside the box to help play the stacked WRs up top. GS rolls the boundary safety into the box and gives AU a 1 high safety look. This is an RPO where Stidham is reading the SAM. If he stays outside (which he does), Stidham is supposed to give it. That's exactly what happens but the problem is with that safety now in the box, AU has only 6 blockers against 7 defenders. AU runs counter trey where they have two pullers to the playside. Everyone actually does their job but because there's an extra defender the play gets snuffed out early.

No one is missing any blocks on this play, this is just the defense winning before the snap. GS can play man to the play side to force a run inside the box where they have numbers. The Eagles relied on this early and it worked in slowing down Auburn's rushing attack in the first quarter. During the game, I just thought Auburn wasn’t getting push. That wasn’t the case, the Eagles just had more men than Auburn could block in the box.

But football is all about adjustments and that's just what Auburn did. One way was by attacking the backside of the defense, like in the play below:

There’s that same 11 personnel for Auburn with Georgia Southern countering with their 4-3 look. The boundary safety rotates in the box just before the snap while the boundary cornerback bails so that he doesn’t get beat deep since he doesn’t have any safety help over the top. AU then simply takes what the defense give them and throws the quick hitch. Darius Slayton makes a man miss and gets the first down.

As teams cheat on the front side of these RPO looks, Chip Lindsey has counter punches to punish the overaggressiveness on the backside. He did the same at Southern Miss and Arizona State, often utilizing slants or hitches so that the QB can quickly get the ball out and the defense is forced to adjust. Plays like this forces that safety to either not commit so fast (making the numbers even in the box again) or forces the cornerback to play tighter coverage (which could later result in a big play over the top).

New Look 3rd Down Defense

On 3rd and long Saturday night, Auburn broke out an interesting dime package that was smothering. The Tigers would sub in their “Rabbit” package up front which consisted of Jeff Holland and Nick Coe on the edge and Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson in the interior. Auburn would also sub in an extra DB to replace the middle linebacker putting six defensive backs on the field (typically called a Dime defense). Check it out below:

That’s Daniel Thomas lined up in the box over top the running back to the boundary. The Tigers are in a cover 2 look with press man on the outside. The SAM linebacker stays in the game and typically was responsible for the running back. The result is a very aggressive look that allows Auburn’s CBs to match up across the board, safeties to protect anything over the top and sets the front loose on the QB. This look was devastating against Georgia Southern and I am curious to see how it looks against Clemson this Saturday. Just for fun, here it is again:

This time Thomas is in charge of covering the H-Back. However, he stays into block as does the running back. That means both Darrell Williams and Daniel Thomas are free to rush the passer. It doesn’t matter though because Auburn runs a stunt with Davidson up front who blows by the RT and get the sack. Hopefully we get to see this look plenty this Saturday against Clemson and generate similar results.

Tre Williams Spotlight

Williams was a huge pickup for Auburn in the 2014 recruiting class. The Mobile native was rated the #2 ILB in the country by 247 composite and was a 5*. After backing up Auburn’s veteran linebacker core in 2014 and 2015, Williams had a somewhat break out year last season though injuries slowed him some. But by the end of the year I thought he was Auburn’s best linebacker and one of the best in the SEC. If Saturday night was any indication, Williams plans on making a case to be one of the best in the country.

This play has a little of everything for Williams. He shows great vision to see the right tackle barreling down on him then flashes elite lateral quickness by avoiding him and then finishes the play with a perfect tackle. I love everything about this play.

But he wasn’t just a force in the run game, he also showed the ability to get after the quarterback as well when needed. Just look at this closing speed.

Williams is responsible for the QB on this play, so when he sees the GS QB drop back to pass he attacks. In about two seconds the senior linebacker covers almost 15 yards and drops the quarterback for the sack. Williams looked like the complete package in week 1 and if he can play at this high of a level all season long he’s going to make himself some money this fall.

Touchdown Auburn

The Tigers scored five touchdowns Saturday night on their way to a 34 point blowout. Here’s a breakdown of each one because it never gets old watching AU score touchdowns.

Who doesn’t a love a well executed buck sweep? The Tigers send Eli Stove in motion which freezes the middle linebacker and sucks in the outside linebacker. Nate Craig-Myers does a great job of sealing the edge while big, bad Braden Smith pulls around and buries the cornerback. All that’s left is Kerryon Johnson dusting the safety and AU hits paydirt for the first time of the night.

This was an important touchdown. Auburn’s three previous drives had ended with an interception, fumble recovery for a touchdown and a missed field goal. Kerryon Johnson had just left the game two plays earlier and Kam Martin had just been stuffed for a two yard loss. The energy in the stadium had vanished. Then this happened. This is basically the modern version of the triple option where Stidham can give it to Kam on the inside zone, throw it to Stove on the flat or take it himself. Pretty sure someone busts for Georgia Southern as every man is accounted for but Stidham who sees a lane and accelerates into the endzone. Life flooded back into the stadium and everyone started to breath just a little bit easier after this score.

Things are rolling now. After converting on 3rd and long with a quick slant over the middle to Will Hastings, Auburn quickly lines up again in 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 H-Back, 4 WRs) and runs an RPO look. It seems like the Tigers had much more success with their RPOs when running them out of 10 personnel rather than 11 Saturday night. In this play, GS sends a blitzer from the strongside. Stidham smartly gives it and Auburn’s right side of the line absolutely crushes the Eagles’ defensive line. Hastings’s slant route draws the free safety away from the middle of the field and good blocking by Slayton on the boundary leaves a wide open lane for Martin to scoot through for the touchdown.

This is an example of the right play call at the right time. Auburn is once again in 10 personnel and Georgia Southern counters with their Nickel (five defensive backs) package. The Eagles send both linebackers on the blitz. Everybody up front picks up a man (kudos to Martin for picking up the weakside linebacker) giving Stidham enough time to make the easy throw to Davis. Auburn stacks Ryan Davis behind Darius Slayton to the boundary. Slayton runs a 10 yd in route and takes the cornerback with him. That leaves a safety to have to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time to make a play on Davis. He doesn’t. Eli Stove does great job blocking downfield giving Davis the chance to flash his speed and quickness and get in the endzone for Stidham’s first TD pass of the season.

This was the throw of the night. Auburn has 11 personnel on the field against Georgia Southern’s base 4-3 look. Stove goes in orbit motion and Stidham play fakes it to him and Malik Miller. Hastings is matched up one on one and beats his man on the post corner route. Stidham then throws a rope from the right hash to the left corner of the endzone, dropping it perfectly into Hastings arms for the touchdown. Throws like that are why it’s hard to not be excited about the potential of this offense. Been a long time since I have seen a throw with that type of juice and accuracy by an Auburn quarterback. Just beautiful.

Final Thoughts

After rewatching the game, I feel much better about the offensive line than I did walking home after the game. For the most part, the big men up front dominated like they should. Credit Georgia Southern for finding ways to get more men in the box than Auburn could block. My only lingering concern is Darius James at right tackle. He looked slow coming out of his stance and struggled at times in pass protection. James was physical in the run game but we need him to hold up better as a pass blocker this Saturday.

All in all, hard to be disappointed with a 34 point victory. The Tigers have plenty to clean up on offense but after that rough three series patch late in the first quarter/early in the second, the offense settled in and did what is should. I would not be shocked to see a much sharper looking offense next week.

War Eagle!