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Nerd’s Take: Here We Are Again

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The Tigers dropped another frustrating game early in the season but past experience tells us that this season is far from over.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Losing sucks.

There’s just no better way to say it. I don’t care if you are the biggest sunshine pumper in the Auburn fanbase or the ultimate negabarner who screams for everyone in the Auburn athletic department to be fired after a run for no gain, you both felt that gut punch Saturday.

Auburn, once again, found a way to lose a very winnable game. How winnable a game? Bill Connelly’s numbers say Auburn had an 83% postgame win expectancy based on how the game played out. That’s an EXTREMELY winnable game that Auburn somehow lost.

Those losses really sting especially when you see what’s coming down the road. The Tigers will face at least three more top 15 teams but they won’t get to play within the comfy confines of Jordan-Hare for any of them.

But that also means Auburn will have plenty of chances at redemption. That’s the blessing and curse of playing in the SEC West. You are cursed with an insane schedule every year but in turn if you can find a way to win more of those than you lose you can still bring some hardware home at the end of the year.

A loss like this gives a team plenty to learn from moving forward. I did my best to highlight where I thought Auburn fell short Saturday and where they might be able to build on moving forward. I doubt you see anything ground breaking in my thoughts below as where Auburn needs to improve is pretty obvious right now.

What Went Wrong

We will start with the bad and finish with the good. Auburn’s issues this season don’t actually feel as dire as they have in previous years but that doesn’t mean they are easily correctable. The next two weeks are big for the Tigers’ chances moving forward

Interior Offensive Line Play

At the heart of Auburn’s inconsistency issues on offense right now is the interior of this offensive line. Specifically, Kaleb Kim and Mike Horton are just not executing at a high enough level for Auburn to be successful running the football against elite defenses.

Kim has done a good job with his assignments and has been pretty solid in pass protection but continues to get physically dominated up front. There were multiple times Saturday that he got stood up at the line of scrimmage by LSU’s nose tackle and then tossed aside when the defender was ready to make a play.

But you can also see above where Horton has struggled. He’s late getting off his combo block and doesn’t reach the backside ILB. That linebacker along with the nose tackle end up making the play.

After Auburn had found success on three straight offensive drives, Dave Aranda made a critical adjustment to his playcalling to finish the game. He decided to send Devin White on an A-gap blitz as often as possible, daring Kim and Horton to prove they could consistently pick it up.

Spoiler alert, they couldn’t

What’s frustrating is there are moments when they get it done. You can see flashes where this offensive line moves people and opens up opportunities for these young talented backs to make plays. It’s just not happening consistently.

I’m not exactly sure what the solution will be for Auburn. I suspect that Nick Brahms and Austin Troxell will both get long hard looks over the next two weeks to see if they can improve this unit’s performance. However, it could be as simple as getting these guys more snaps together and time to gel. But this is why JB Grimes was brought back, to fix these issues up front. We’ll see over the next few weeks if he can get it done.

Too Many Secondary Busts

One of the big concerns I had for this defense heading into 2018 was whether or not they could continue to do a good job of not giving up those easy big plays over the top in the passing game. Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts were excellent at not allowing anybody to get behind them and preventing those big chunk plays. You can see that in their numbers from last year as Auburn ranked 25th in Passing Explosiveness which means they were very good at not allowing explosive plays through the air.

It appears through three weeks those concerns were valid. Auburn currently ranks 115th in Defensive Passing Explosiveness after three games. That’s pretty terrible.

LSU made the conscious decision heading into this game to not allow Auburn’s pass rush to beat them. During the game I was frustrated with Auburn’s inability to pressure Joe Burrow but in hindsight it’s pretty easy to see why. As Cole Cubelic noted earlier this week, LSU rarely went 5 on 4 in their pass protection, electing instead to keep at least six guys in as blockers on almost every pass attempt.

In fact, multiple times Saturday LSU had basically only one man in a route and everyone else protecting. Frustratingly, they consistently completed those passes for big gains.

That just can’t happen and it did consistently.

But the biggest blow happened in the 4th quarter when Auburn surrendered a back breaking touchdown. Auburn had three guys around the ball yet no one could knock it down nor make the tackle.

Don’t be surprised if more teams elect to stick to max protections in the future. Auburn’s secondary has not proven it can consistently get the job done just yet. There have been flashes for sure but both Washington and LSU were able to land big blows through the air. This has to get better or it won’t matter how great Auburn is at defending the run, opponents will just throw it over their heads.

Turnovers & Penalties

I said in my offensive scouting report that Auburn could not give this offense a short field due to turnovers and could not give up a cheap touchdown. Auburn somehow accomplished both.

The first pass of the game might be Jarrett Stidham’s worst in an Auburn uniform so far. Not only is he late throwing this ball but he puts it in the absolute worst place. This needs to be thrown to Ryan Davis’s outside shoulder so that the only guy that can catch it is Davis. Instead, Stidham throws this WAY too far inside and Grant Delpit makes a play. Once again, this LSU offense did not miss an opportunity to put points on the board with a short field.

I’m not 100% sure who to blame on that 2nd pick. It appears Darius Slayton and Jarrett Stidham saw different things. If Slayton has a step on Greedy Williams then Stidham needs to him in stride. If Greedy is on Slayton’s hip, then he should have broken off his route for the back shoulder throw. Without the all-22 angle it’s hard to know who read the situation wrong but the bottom line this can’t happen at this point in the game. It ended up not resulting in any LSU points but it flipped the field position and Auburn’s offense never really recovered.

Finally, there are the penalties. Yes, the officials absolutely missed the pass interference call on Darius Slayton that should have kept that drive alive. Yes, there were two interference penalties called on Auburn’s defense that felt a little ticky tacky considering they weren’t called the other way. But there were A LOT of very fair calls against the Tigers and even a few that probably could have gone against Auburn’s defense that were missed. The bottom line is Auburn has now twice put up more than 100 yards of penalties in a game. That’s unacceptable. To Gus Malzhan’s credit he owned that fact yesterday.

If this was just a one game type of thing I might write it off as a weird moment but two games in three weeks is a concern. Auburn’s secondary has to get better at defending without grabbing and Auburn’s offensive line has to figure out how to handle blitzing linebackers without holding. Not grabbing face-masks would help too. You aren’t going to leave Starkville, Athens or Tuscaloosa with victories if you are giving them over 100 yards in penalties. It just ain’t gonna happen.

What Went Right

It wasn’t all bad Saturday. I actually thought Auburn started to find themselves a bit offensively and Auburn’s defense was again outstanding at stopping the run. There are some strong pieces to build around moving forward and I am still 100% convinced the Tigers have the athletes to win the SEC West. They just have to figure out a way to play at a high level for four quarters.

Deshaun Davis

It’s an absolute shame that Davis’s performance will go unnoticed for the most part nationally because of the result of the game. It’s also a shame he couldn’t get that one final highlight moment on that barely missed interception to cap off his performance. But Deshaun Davis played absolutely out of his mind Saturday.

The LSU back hits the hole at full speed and thinks he has a lane. But watch Deshaun Davis crash in to lead blocker and create a wall for the back to run into. When the back hits that wall he just stops moving.

Davis had Auburn’s only sack of the day. One of the few times Big Kat Bryant got a chance to go 1 on 1 against an LSU OT and he gets some pressure. Burrow tries to escape but Davis ain’t having it. No Davis isn’t the fastest man on the field but his short area quickness is impressive.

This might have been my favorite play of the game. LSU is running QB Counter with Joe Burrow and it sure looks like there’s a nice lane there for him to run. But watch Deshaun Davis attack the inside shoulder of the pulling tight end, power through the block and then take Burrow’s feet out from under him for the 3rd down stop.

The Draft Network had an outstanding write up on him this morning and their description is perfect for what Davis means to this defense. He’s the lynchpin that binds this talented front together. We only get a few more games to watch this kid play in an Auburn uniform so enjoy them. Overlooked as a recruit and by the previous defensive coaching staff, Davis has become the heart beat of this defense and deserves a hell of a senior year. He also deserves some serious consideration when the NFL Draft rolls around next year.

Freshman Playmakers

Probably the most exciting development Saturday was the further emergence of Auburn’s 2018 offensive signing class. I talked last week about how Auburn had some new emerging stars and their performances against LSU only solidified that fact in my mind.

Auburn veterans weren’t getting it done early in this game. Stidham threw an interception on the first drive, Ryan Davis almost had a fumble on the next one and Kam Martin had a bad drop on the 2nd drive as well. This offense looked stuck in the mud until the freshman took over.

For the 2nd straight week JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow rushed for over 100 yards. These were hard earned yards as well. With Auburn’s interior OL struggles, it wasn’t often Boobee got a chance to get out of the backfield untouched. But that didn’t stop him from fighting for positive yards.

When he did get a chance to hit the LOS untouched you really got a chance to see what he can do. No he’s not the fastest or necessarily most explosive back Auburn has had but his size, strength, quickness and vision make him a perfect fit for this rushing attack.

Through three weeks, Whitlow has 254 yards on 44 carries and two touchdowns. He’s averaging just shy of 6 yards a carry. The Tigers have found their lead tailback.

After dealing with Boobee for a few drives, Auburn can then throw sparkplug Shaun Shivers at you. Paired with a fast pace of play, Shivers can be a nasty changeup defenses have to deal with as the game wears on.

We all knew Anthony Schwartz could fly but he’s shown early this year that he’s a true wide receiver not a track guy playing wide receiver. I’ve been impressed with his ability to catch the ball away from his body and to run crisp routes to get himself open.

But that speed can’t be ignored and it was amazing how many times his motion across the formation drew the attention of so many LSU defenders. A good example is on the wheel route to another freshman in Asa Martin. Watch how many LSU defenders get sucked in by Schwartz speed sweep motion. Nobody picks Asa up out of the backfield and Auburn is inside the 10 yard line.

But nobody is turning heads like Seth Williams. Sure his numbers aren’t gaudy up to this point but it’s HOW he’s produced that’s so crazy. Heck, even a drop had people jumping out of their seats.

Williams gives Auburn that threat they have been missing since Duke Williams. A big bodied athlete that can own the middle of the field and go up and get the football when needed. His snap counts have steadily increased through the first three weeks and I expect that to continue. Especially when you can do things like snag a bullet pass thrown behind you, duck a would be tackler and truck a safety to pickup a few more yards.

Auburn’s offense has a plethora of young weapons that have a chance to make a major impact this season. I suspect all four of these guys see more snaps as the season progresses. If Auburn can figure out how to block people consistently this offense has a chance to be a lot of fun in the coming years.

Touchdown Auburn

Sadly this section is not as long as it should be but there were still a few nice touchdowns to celebrate. Encouragingly, Auburn went 3-4 in the redzone this past Saturday with all three scores being touchdowns. More of that please.

Auburn’s first score of the day comes out of an unbalanced look running what I believe to be Power (could be Counter) to the weak side. What makes this play is Whitlow’s patience. He fires his feet briefly to allow Tucker Brown to reach the middle linebacker and for Chandler Cox to reach the backside linebacker. Those two blocks at the 2nd level along with the good work by the big men up front give Whitlow a clear lane to the endzone for the score.

Not too long later Auburn was back in the endzone again and had captured the lead. This time it’s Shaun Shivers on Inside Zone Read Option. Jarrett Stidham is reading the unblocked DE on the right side of the line of scrimmage. He stays home so Stidham gives it. Jalen Harris seals the OLB while Harrell does enough to keep the LSU defensive end from making the play. Shivers sees the hole immediately and wastes no time blowing through it. Interestingly, his path to the hole fools the MAC linebacker (#6) into thinking he’s coming through the A-gap and not the B-gap. That one false step gives Shivers the time he needs to find the endzone.

This was just beautiful. Facing 3rd & goal after Stidham was stopped short of the endzone on a keeper and a disaster of a Wildcat play, Auburn lines up in a pretty familiar formation close to the goaline. Typically a play like this is either Power to the strong side or a reverse to the weak side. Auburn uses both of those tendencies against LSU. Watch #9 Grant Delpit for LSU get sucked in by Schwartz’s motion while at the same time #6 steps up because he thinks a run is coming. That opens up a ton of space in the endzone for Darius Slayton and Stidham sees it immediately. Weird to see Slayton score from only four yards out.

The Future

Frustratingly, Auburn has been here before. Under Malzahn, the Tigers have perfected the art of blowing a game early and digging themselves a hole (to be fair lots of AU coaches have accomplished that feat). But as frustrating as that might be it also means they have experience digging themselves out. Outside of 2015, Auburn has found themselves in the thick of the SEC race come November despite an early loss. The Tigers have a chance to do the same here.

It won’t be easy and Auburn has given themselves no breathing room for any mistakes. There are some glaring holes on this team right now that I believe are fixable but it’s not certain they will be. These next two weeks will be critical to Auburn’s season. I expect the Tigers to dominate but it’s HOW they dominate that matters. Do they continue to turn the ball over? Do they continue to rack up penalty yardage? How often are opponents touching ball carriers in the back field? Are they still allowing big plays through the air?

Auburn needs to not only whoop up on Arkansas and Southern Miss, they need to look good doing it. Because on October 6th, they will get their first chance at redemption against a good looking Mississippi State squad. It will be the first of many difficult steps to get back to Atlanta. A path still very much traversable but one that looks a lot more difficult to navigate than it did just a week ago.

War Eagle!