Once again, Auburn’s offense struggled out the gate. The Tigers went 3 & out to open the game (shout out to Auburn’s game clock...) and then followed that possession up with a fumble on 4th & 1 they weren’t going to convert anyway. What did they do on the next two possessions after failing to get five yards on four plays?
They went 3 & out....
Thankfully, Auburn’s offense found a spark early in the 2nd quarter. Facing another 3rd down situation, Gus Malzahn decided to dial up one of my favorite plays in his arsenal.
This play is probably best remembered as the final dagger Auburn planted in UGA’s chest back in 2017 on that beautiful night in Jordan-Hare. While this one didn’t go for a touchdown it did get Auburn’s offense moving again.
The Tigers are in 20 personnel meaning they have two backs (I am classifying Nigh as a fullback), no tight ends and three wide receivers on the field. It’s cut off in this gif due to the highlight tape I ripped it from but Auburn is initially in a Shotgun look with Whitlow offset to the right of Nix. However, before the snap, Nix moves under center while Boobee slides up to the side of Nigh. Anthony Schwartz comes across the formation and his sweep action draws FOUR Tulane defenders. As a result, when Boobee slips out the backside there is only one man that can stop him. Granted, that defender trucks Marquel Harrell but Prince Tega Wanogho gets enough of him to ensure Boobee moves the chains.
Auburn then goes hurry up. They don’t get much on a draw play (Harrell gets beat across his face, Boobee fails to see the cutback) following the first down but on 2nd down the Tigers strike gold.
All three of Bo Nix’s touchdowns this season have come from exploiting busts in the defense. As a true freshman, to already have the savviness to quickly recognize a major error in the defense and immediately take advantage is not something you see everyday.
Auburn is in a 2x2 look with Will Hastings and Seth Williams near side and Sal Cannella and Eli Stove up top. It looks like Auburn is simply running four verticals on this play. Auburn has a major mismatch pre snap with Will Hastings being covered by Patrick Johnson who is actually a pass rusher that plays the hybrid LB/DE position called the Joker in Tulane’s defense (think Buck). That mismatch gets even better when Johnson just sits down in zone coverage leaving Hastings free over the middle. The deep safety can’t help because he’s reacting to the vertical routes to the far side of the field. Nix quickly recognizes Hastings is wide open, gets him the ball and Hastings hits Tulane’s last remaining hope with a spin move for the score.
After that drive, Auburn had some momentum going on offense. Tulane could do nothing with their ensuing possession and the Tigers got the ball back at their own 42. After two quick completions to Eli Stove gets one first down, Auburn finds themselves facing another 3rd down situation. Auburn again decides to spread the field with four wideouts and Nix finds Williams in a favorable matchup.
This play might end up costing Auburn a lot depending on how long it takes for Williams to recover from his shoulder injury but it was a huge play in Saturday night’s game. Both slot wide receivers are running crossing routes over the middle. It kind of looks like Mesh but typically the crossing routes are run much closer to each other in that type of concept. Either way, Nix had Hastings here for a first down if he hits him in stride over the middle. Instead, Nix elects to take the 1 on 1 matchup with Williams.
If Nix throws this over Williams’s outside shoulder then it probably carries Williams into the endzone. But that is a bit of a nitpick, he throws a good enough ball for Williams to make a play on which he does. Unfortunately, Williams would leave the game with a shoulder injury and when he can return to action is unknown at this time.
Following that big play and stop in action to address Williams’s injury, Auburn would line up in Wildcat and Boobee would try to go over the top. For the 2nd straight week, an Auburn player would attempt to dive over the pile and stretch the ball out only to have it knocked away by a defender. This time, the ball would be ruled to have been dislodged before crossing the goal line. Thankfully, a heads up play by Marquel Harrell saved the drive.
I thought Auburn might wait for a review because it looks like maybe Whitlow broke the plane before fumbling but Malzahn elects to go fast.
The Tigers are in an unbalanced look with Wanogho lined up on the right side as an extra tackle. Tega is able to reach stud Tulane pass rusher Patrick Johnson and keep him out of the play. Nigh pulls around and fits on the edge player creeping out wide while Sal does a good job cracking the outside linebacker. The DB who was matched up with Stove in man coverage is the only man with a shot at stopping Stove but he can’t get there in time.
Unfortunately, Auburn would spend the rest of this half trapped inside their own 20 yard line. A discombobulated final drive of the half would end with no points and the Tigers headed into halftime with an uncomfortable 14-6 lead.
Tulane would again flip the field to start the 2nd half. Auburn started their first drive at their own 5 yard line. They would get a first down but that would be it. On the following drive, Auburn started on the 18 but would FINALLY get the run game going. A questionable pass interference call on a wheel route to Harold Joiner on 3rd & 3 got the drive kickstarted and from there it was all Boobee ending with this beautiful Wildcat touchdown.
Facing 2nd & 4 from inside the 15, Auburn goes Wildcat out of the hurry up and runs Buck Sweep. Both guards pull around to the weak side while the rest of the offensive line down blocks. What makes this play is the outstanding job Jack Driscoll, Prince Tega Wanogho and Spencer Nigh do sealing their men inside. When Horton and Harrell pull around, there’s no one to block at first. Tulane’s beefy nose tackle eventually breaks free from Driscoll but Harrell is there to clean him up. Horton continues down field and is able to get enough of the last remaining defensive back to allow Boobee to get into the endzone untouched.
The Tigers had a ton of success running Buck Sweep out of the Wildcat this past Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if you see more of it in the very near future, not just out of the Wildcat look either.
Overall, it was a disappointing performance for the offense but you continue to see the flashes that give hope. Nix is still developing but continues to exploit failures in the defense. He would have had another touchdown if he could have hit Hastings in stride to end the half.
The run game is still a major concern. Auburn’s is struggling to get much movement when running Inside or Split Zone but were able to eat up yards out of those concepts vs Oregon thanks to Boobee doing a great job being patient and finding a hole. That didn’t work against Tulane as both Boobee struggled identifying the correct run lane and Auburn’s offensive line continued to struggle getting much movement. The Tigers found some success running more gap concepts (like Power and Buck Sweep) in the 2nd half especially when running behind either Wanogho or Driscoll.
I suspect Auburn will have success regardless of scheme this Saturday against a very bad Kent State defense so we really won’t get answers about this run game until they head to College Station in two weeks. The inconsistency to execute the core concepts of Malzahn’s philosophy is a major concern yet both games Auburn’s offense has found a way to get the run game going in the 2nd half. That’s a flip from the way things usually go under Malzahn. Typically Auburn’s offense starts out on fire running the pregame script before stalling out in the 2nd & 3rd quarters. This year, Auburn’s opening scripts have been duds but the staff has done a great job making adjustments to spark some important drives. It’s important they figure out how to do both over the next two weeks before Auburn enters the gauntlet that is their SEC schedule in 2019.