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Nerd’s Take: Auburn Wins A Game They’ve Lost Too Many Times Before

Auburn found themselves in an eerily similar situation they’d been in before. But this time, Auburn found a way to get it done.

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game-Auburn at Washington Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

A familiar script played out Saturday. Auburn came out the gates on fire but failed to take full advantage of their opportunities. Then the offense stalled out while Auburn’s opponent connected on a few impressive explosive plays to move the football. The Tigers lost the lead late and needed their offense to find a way to score with time running out.

It looked like a bad rerun. The same one we saw against Clemson in 2016 or Georgia 2016 or Clemson 2017 or LSU 2017 or the SEC Championship Game or the Peach Bowl. That’s a frustratingly long list just from the past two seasons. It looked like we were close to making it just a bit longer Saturday.

But this movie had an alternate ending.

Falling behind 16-15, Auburn’s offense got off the mat and made some plays. Jarrett Stidham, for the first time as an Auburn Tiger, lead a game winning TD drive in the 4th quarter. Going 76 yards in 10 plays, Auburn retook the lead 21-16. They turned it over to the defense who finally got a chance to slam the door shut in one of these contests. They delivered. In turn, the offense got a chance to ice the game for good. They delivered.

Those final three drives of the game have been what Auburn has missed since really 2013. Auburn has had at times either an offense capable of scoring when they absolutely had to or a defense capable of ending the game when asked but rarely both. In 2018, Auburn just might have both.

There were plenty of mistakes and Auburn will have to be better if they want to win any sort of championship this season but they found a way to win Saturday. Each and every week it’s about being just a little better than your opponent. Auburn accomplished that week 1. Just eleven more weeks to go.

Run Game Struggles

The #1 concern moving forward for this Auburn Tiger football team is the run game. As long as Gus Malzahn is Auburn’s head football coach, the run game will be the heartbeat of this offense. Saturday, that heartbeat was scary slow. The Tigers struggled to find much consistency on the ground. That in turn lead to A LOT of 2nd and long situations along with some struggles in the red zone.

*FWIW Auburn actually threw the ball more on 1st down in this game too

It’s rarely one person’s fault when an aspect of a football team struggles and that’s the case with Auburn’s rushing attack. Sometimes it was a bad read by the running back. Often times, it was one offensive lineman missing his assignment or getting beat up front. Give this Washington front credit, they played a big role in those struggles. Before the game, I speculated that Greg Gaines would be a tough man to handle week one and that proved true most of the day. I was also impressed with Jaylen Johnson and Levi Onwuzurike. The Huskies were able to rely on their defensive line to eat up double teams which freed their linebackers to make plays. Unsurprisingly, Washington’s inside linebackers lead the team in tackles with 13 and 8 respectively. That’s what happens when you aren’t getting to the 2nd level.

For Auburn, it’s all about consistency. At times, this group executed beautifully such as on this 4th and 1 play.

This is one of Auburn’s staple running plays, inside zone. Watch how Marquel Harrell takes the nose guard who slants inside, Kaleb Kim climbs to the linebacker while Mike Horton seals the defensive end. The result is a big gain and a first down.

Other times, it seemed like they were just out of synch. Here’s that same inside zone play below but this time Kim doesn’t get off his double team and reach the linebacker.

The good news is a lot of what I saw against the Huskies can be cleaned up. Hopefully with more snaps together, this group can start to gel and execute Auburn’s run scheme more consistently. I doubt Mike Horton plays as bad a game again this season as he did Saturday and I think Kim will only improve as the season goes on. But the most encouraging sign was when Auburn absolutely had to have something on the ground, this group delivered.

Oh and just for the fun of it, let’s compare negative plays given up the last three seasons.

  • 2016 vs Clemson - 14 tackles for loss, 4 sacks
  • 2017 vs Georgia Southern - 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks
  • 2018 vs Washington - 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks

And just cuz, here’s Texas’s numbers from last weekend.

  • 2018 vs Maryland - 7 tackles for loss, 1 sack

I think it’s clear the Tigers are starting from a better place in 2018. Still work to be done but I think this group is in better hands.

Secondary Will Be Fine

I know another major concern for Auburn fans after Saturday’s victory is the secondary, specifically pass defense. I’m not one of those fans.

Yes, giving up almost 300 yards through the air isn’t fun. Yes, watching Washington complete back shoulder fade after back shoulder fade was annoying. Yes, there were too many pass interferences. Yes, this group can be better.

But here’s the thing. Auburn’s defense is schematically designed to force opponents to consistently execute low percentage plays. The Tigers start by ensuring that you will have ZERO success running the football up the middle. They leave a safety deep plus have a ferocious pass rush to ensure they don’t give up the bomb over the top. They play press man on the outside, taking away the short passing game and disrupting the timing in the intermediate passing game. So your options are VERY limited on offense. You better have some ballers at WR and a QB who can accurately throw it where only your man can catch it.

Turns out, Washington had both. Outside of a couple plays, Auburn was in position all night long. Sometimes the other guy is just that good.

There isn’t really a better way to defend these plays (especially when the WR can push off). Browning is taking a quick 3 step drop and drilling back shoulder throws. His receivers are making insane snags under duress. If an opponent can do that all game, then props to them.

But overall I thought for a unit replacing three huge pieces this group was outstanding. Throw in losing one of their top players for most of the game, Javaris Davis, it’s even more impressive. There may have been new faces taking over starring roles but the results were eerily similar to last year, especially in the run game.

Instead of Stephen Roberts flying in to clean up a run play, it was Daniel Thomas appearing out of nowhere to deliver the blow.

Instead of Tray Matthews closing in on a hapless QB who has strayed outside the tackle box, it was Jeremiah Dinson who quickly read the play and made the tackle.

Instead of Carlton Davis peeling off his WR and planting a running back, it was Jamel Dean deftly navigating his way through traffic and making the tackle.

There are plenty of things to clean up but for a group that was a major worry heading into the 2018 season, I feel MUCH better after watching them week one. Just need to stay healthy and keep improving.

Touchdown Auburn

This section is not as long as it should be but it is as long as it needed to be. I’m hoping that half the article next week is breaking down Auburn touchdowns.

First off, I want to note this formation. Before the timeout, Auburn looked like they might be setting up some sort of end around for Anthony Schwartz. They apparently didn’t like what they saw pre snap and called timeout. Instead, they came out in this formation that I expect will be a common look in the redzone.

Auburn is in 12 personnel meaning they have one back on the field, two tight ends (that’s John Samuel Shenker at H-Back) and two wide receivers. You could maybe say they have three tight ends on the field with Sal but whatever. Interestingly, up top is Seth Williams the true freshman who has been making waves as a redzone threat. My guess is Stidham was going to throw a jump ball on this play no matter what, the question was to which side. The safety is cheating to Williams side while the other is accounting for the H-Back. That gives AU a clear 1v1 for Cannella. Sal runs the stop & go that CJ Uzomah used to kill people with back in 2013. This is a bullet by Stidham and Sal rises up to snag it for a touchdown. I expect a lot of jump balls to these two guys this season in the redzone. Beautiful play.

What a glorious way to win a football game. After struggling to run the football in the redzone all night, Auburn dials up a run call on 3rd & long. Tigers are actually running the read option here. If the DE had crashed, Stidham would have pulled it and probably have scored if Jalen Harris got the job done. Instead, he gives it and Whitlow explodes through the hole for the touchdown. Watch how Wanogho and Harrell execute their double team perfectly. Also, shout out to Kim for the pancake. Everything about this play is magnificent, even the radio call by Rod.


War Eagle!