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Touchdown Auburn: Kent State Edition

Auburn’s offense was unstoppable Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Auburn Julie Bennett-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn’s offense broke out in a big way Saturday night against the hapless Kent State Golden Flashes. Does 400+ yards on the ground and 50+ points mean everything is good and we can expect offensive fireworks from here on out? Of course not. But not doing so would have spelled disaster.

How Auburn went about doing their damage is worth exploring. The Tigers offensive attack looked very different from the one we saw the last time Auburn was in Texas. It featured a lot more gap concepts and a running threat at QB. I think Malzahn has a better understanding of what Auburn can and can’t do heading into this weekend’s SEC opener.

Let’s explore....

Auburn has started slow offensively the first 2 weeks of the season. In fact, they have been slow to start all four halves heading into last week’s contest having gone 3 & out on three of their first four opening drives. None resulting in any points of any kind.

That changed Saturday.

The Tigers looked to establish the rushing attack early but more interestingly was the type of rushing threat they wanted to show. Late in that drive Auburn broke out the Zone Read once again with great success.

Nix is reading the defensive end on the far side of the field. That defender is purposefully left unblocked. If he hangs out wide then Nix gives this to Boobee who will run behind his offensive line blocking Inside Zone. If he pinches in, as he does on this play, Nix keeps it and goes outside for a big gain.

Also notice Matthew Hill up above. He’s running a little bubble and that occupies the Nickel defender. As a result, there is no one within 10 yards capable of tackling Nix. Some nice blocking by Shenker down the field allows Nix to get a few more yards.

The Tigers use pace following Nix’s first big pickup and run the same concept the opposite way. Again, the DE crashes inside while the overhang defender follows the bubble action. Nix makes the right read and gashes the Golden Flashes again setting up first & goal.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Auburn goes to the read zone well a third time. However, on this play, notice how the DE hangs wide. Nix might have been able to beat him to the endzone but makes the wise choice to hand it off. The safety is also not crashing hard downfield in case Nix decides to keep this and go wide. As a result, Boobee can get into the endzone before either can make a play.

What really stands out about those 3 plays is the fact that Auburn is able to basically remove two defenders by not blocking them. That gives Auburn a major numbers advantage and is a great way to attack stacked boxes. My guess is if that overhang defender doesn’t chase the bubble Nix has the freedom to throw the ball to Hill who will have a blocker ahead of him. Auburn used this concept some with Jarrett Stidham but without the QB keeper option (at least from what I can remember). Adding the QB’s feet as a weapon essentially makes this a modern day triple option attack.

Auburn’s offense went back to work on drive #2 again relying on the ground game.

Auburn has two H-Backs on this play presenting Kent State with a heavier front. The Tigers are running Split Zone with Jay Jay Wilson slicing across the formation to block the backside defender. Front side, Sharp does enough to get his DE out of the play while Harrell teams up with Kaleb Kim to drive the defensive tackle out of the play. Mike Horton almost drives his man straight into the running lane but is able to remove him just as Boobee arrives. Sharp’s man has a shot at Whitlow but he runs through the arm tackle and breaks free for a big gain.

Two plays later this happens.

Whitlow looked noticeably winded on the following play and is stopped for a one yard loss. Auburn then does something incredible. They rotate in a fresh back for their tired one. The very next play goes for a touchdown.

This is a better look at the play. Auburn is running GT (Guard-Tackle) Counter which has become a staple of the 2019 Auburn rushing attack. It’s a new wrinkle that Kenny Dillingham has brought to this offense and one that Auburn appears to be executing very well.

The way GT Counter works is the play side offensive lineman (in this case Jack Driscoll, Mike Horton and Kaleb Kim) all zone block to the left giving the impression Auburn is running Inside Zone that direction. Meanwhile, the backside lineman (Bailey Sharp and Marquel Harrell) pull around into the vacated B-gap. Harrell is responsible for the first man he sees which in this case is the DE. He flattens him while Sharp leads Martin into the hole. If the linebacker hadn’t blitzed himself out of the play then he would have fit on said backer. Instead, there is just green grass ahead of Martin who makes one move on the safety and takes it to the house.

After a 3 & out where Boobee Whitlow dropped a big play on the wheel route, Auburn’s offense gets back on track. Some nice runs by Whitlow gets Auburn into Kent State territory which is when Gus dials up a shot.

Auburn is actually showing Inverted Veer in the backfield where Bo Nix would read an interior defender to decide whether or not to give it to Shaun Shivers or keep it himself up the middle. Cam Newton used to wreck defenses with that concept. Here though it’s used as play action. Eli Stove is running what looks like a 15 yard out while Sal Cannella follows him on a skinny post. The cornerback stays outside picking up Stove while the safety stays deep in case Cannella is running a vertical. So when Cannella breaks inside he’s wide open.

Nix makes the right read but seems to short arm the throw. Sal does a great job slowing down, adjusting to the pass thrown behind him and making the catch. If Nix hits him in stride this might be a touchdown but the big play does set Auburn up inside the 10.

On the previous play, Nix draws Gus’s ire by not cutting up field after keeping the ball on the zone read. Here, he makes the right decision stretching it out wide behind Anthony Schwartz’s block.

It’s fun seeing a true dual threat QB running this offense again. Keep doing it Gus!

Auburn finished the 1st half with a punt and a field goal. With the game a little closer than anyone would like, Auburn’s offense would look to get things rolling once again to start the 2nd half.

Here’s that same zone read play we highlighted on the first drive with a slightly different wrinkle. Nigh is lined up as an H-Back to the play side opposed to being on the line as a tight end backside like before. That would give Nix a lead blocker if he decides to pull it. But the same principles hold true. Nix is reading the end man on the line of scrimmage. If he chases Whitlow, Nix will pull it with the option to hit Stove on the bubble or keep it himself.

The read on this play is a bit muddied due to the blitz. Nigh picks up the 2nd blitzer but let’s the first one through to be read. Nix smartly gives it seeing all the traffic outside and Whitlow does a great job cutting back into the area vacated by the blitz. A big gain for the Tigers.

This was my favorite play from Bo all night. Watch his eyes when he initially drops back. He’s looking to the left where he has two wide receivers, doesn’t like what he sees and quickly gets his eyes over to Schwartz all before he hits the end of his drop. On the throw, he plants his back foot (a problem earlier in the night) and delivers an on target laser to Anthony Schwartz who somehow comes down with it despite the heavily taped hand.

I thought against both Oregon and Tulane, Nix made a lot of decisions pre snap on where he was going with the football or staring down his #1 man hoping to see him get open. Saturday night, he did a much better job moving defenders with his eyes. Once he gets more consistent with his footwork and stops rushing some throws, you are really going to see him make some big plays through the air.

Auburn scores on GT Counter again just the opposite direction. What I want to call out on this score though is the insanely wide splits Auburn is deploying up top. The Tigers have trips to the far side of the field but none of them are inside the far hash. As a result, Kent State’s defense is forced to commit three defenders outside that hash. A 4th, the deep safety, gets caught watching that action and as a result, when Whitlow breaks through the line of scrimmage there is literally no one there to stop him.

Auburn used those same wide splits on Martin’s earlier score as well. That’s something to keep an eye on this weekend.

On Auburn’s ensuing possession Gus Malzahn decides to plant the dagger. Up to this point, Auburn had run on all but two plays. As a result, Kent State’s secondary had their eyes firmly planted in the backfield and were coming downfield hard. Auburn’s coaching staff noticed and drew up a way to punish them.


Watch both safeties come flying into the picture with the initial hand off to Martin. Eli Stove bluffs like he’s going to block the safety which lulls the cornerback to sleep. Right before he reaches the safety he breaks up field and the Golden Flashes have no shot at catching him. Nix takes some air out of the ball to make sure he doesn’t overshoot Stove and the Tigers put 6 on the board.

We have officially reached garbage time and Auburn’s 2nd team offensive line is in the game.

The first play proves quite successful. The Tigers are again running GT Counter with wide splits up top. Bailey Sharp and Tashawn Manning both do a great job washing their men down. Jalil Irvin and Brodarious Hamm pull around and fit on the two remaining defenders while Shivers runs through the would be tackle of the backside linebacker. Great first play for this 2nd unit.

No surprise to see Joey running the read option. With Kent State in an odd look up front (meaning 3 down lineman), Gatewood is actually reading the outside linebacker. That backer sinks in so Joey keeps it and gets around the end for a very nice pickup. Great job by Gatewood.

One thing that has really jumped out with Auburn’s freshman QBs is they may not always make the right decision but they are always decisive. You don’t see them freeze or seem unsure. Here, Joey wants to pull this ball and hit Farrar on a quick hitch to counter attack the blitzing CB. However, the S is aligned so closely that he’s easily able to get over top Farrar. Also, the blitzing CB is right in the path of the throw. So Joey gives him a quick pump, tucks it and goes.

Again, both of these young QBs have made and will continue to make mistakes. But it’s encouraging to see them play with such confidence and make quick decisions when facing live fire. They will only get better with more reps.

Gatewood’s first touchdown of the night comes on QB Power which he decides to stretch out wide. I don’t believe there is a read on this play otherwise a give to Hill would have been a touchdown. Doesn’t matter because Gatewood quickly sees there’s no one with outside contain and follows Hill into the endzone.

Harold Joiner made his first appearance as a ball carrier on the final scoring drive of the night. Unfortunately for him, Gatewood was in keep mode at that point.

So I don’t think this is the right read here from Joey. Again, with the odd front he’s reading the backer who stays wide and appears to be spying on Gatewood. Notice how Joiner had a lot of running room if he had been given the ball. Instead, Joey keeps it and just straight outruns the defender to the sideline for the big gain. Would have been nice though for Joiner to get an explosive play on the ground himself but whatever...

Gatewood’s first pass attempt of 2019 goes short of the endzone. Jay Jay Wilson comes on a short drag route and with all the defenders hanging out in the endzone, Gatewood makes the right decision to hit Wilson over the middle and give him a chance to break a tackle and score. It doesn’t work but it was nice to at least see Joey get a chance to throw the football (my only major complaint about the game).

Gatewood’s final score looks a lot like the first one. Once again, no one has outside contain so Joey breaks this wide. Give Matthew Hill a lot of credit for having his head on a swivel and finding someone to block. Not sure if that guy would have caught Gatewood but it’s nice that he didn’t have the chance.

Obviously, it is highly unlikely Auburn drops 50+ on Texas A&M this weekend. They will face a much more stout front 7 in an unfriendly stadium but I think Auburn at least heads into College Station with a better understanding of what it can do. Expect the Tigers to use a lot of gap run concepts, give Nix the freedom to keep on the zone read and some deep shots off of play action. Will it be enough to get the W? No idea but I am hopeful next week we have a handful of scores to break down following another gutsy win in Texas.

War Eagle!