Auburn completed its season-ending five-game losing skid with a deflating 17-13 loss to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl on Tuesday. The blame for this loss falls almost entirely on the offense, which turned in another wet fart of a performance and fell to 0-3 with TJ Finley at the helm. Yes, they were without three starters up front, but it's clear this unit will need major reinforcements up front and under center if they're going to be competitive next season. The likelihood of significant offseason personnel changes and the limited amount of install time available during the bowl practices diminishes the value of this film somewhat, but since it was Harsin's first game calling plays for Auburn's offense, I thought it might provide enough insight into the future on that side of the ball to be worth a second look, as excruciating as that will be.
NB: the copy of the game I was using got nuked before I could finish making the gifs, so I had to scrap together what I could from the available highlight videos on Youtube; if I find another copy of it, I'll go back and make the rest of the gifs, but I figured it was better to get this up with a few gifs missing than to just sit on it until nobody cares anymore.
For all of the things Auburn's offense has done badly this year (and there are a lot of them), one of the bright spots has been the opening scripts, which have generally led to productive starts. That was...not the case in this game. After Houston opened the game with a lengthy touchdown drive, Auburn began its first drive at its own 23.
Auburn starts under center and runs one of its most basic plays, inside zone. More specifically, this is split zone, with the H-back pulling away from the play to kick out the backside defensive end, creating split flow and hopefully opening up a potential cutback lane for the RB. Auburn dresses this play up a bit with jet sweep motion; they made heavy use of jet motion from under center during this game and, as you'll see, had a whole series of plays built off this look. The first one doesn't work very well, however, as both the LG and the C whiff on their blocks and Tank has nowhere to go.
On the following play, Auburn shows a formation that I'm not sure I recall seeing before, an unbalanced 11 personnel trips look. Sometimes unbalanced formations can be used in passing situations to deceive the defense about which players are eligible receivers and which ones aren't, but in this case, it looks like Auburn just wanted extra protection on the frontside of the play. This is a three-man flood concept, one of the most common pass concepts Auburn has used this year. The idea is to overload (or "flood") zone coverage by sending three receivers to the same side of the field at different depths. Houston's DBs don't defend it correctly, and the second level receiver is open, but Finley throws to the short man who is double covered and misses so badly the cameraman is barely able to get the ball in frame. He threw another wounded duck on third down and Auburn was forced to punt.
After a Houston punt, Auburn came back out on offense looking to make amends on their second drive. They...did not. On first down, Harsin goes to another staple of Auburn's passing game this year, F swing. There's no read here, it's just a straight swing pass to the RB with the receivers on that side blocking downfield instead of running routes. It's an awful throw by Finley and it leads to a three-yard loss.
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On the next play, Auburn went back to the 12 personnel grouping (1 RB, 2 TEs) that it started the game with. This is GY counter, one of the core plays of many spread offenses, including Gus Malzahn's. The playside linemen block down (toward the backside), while the backside guard pulls to kick out the playside DE and the backside H-back/TE leads through the hole and blocks the playside LB. It's executed very well here and Auburn gets a nice gain out of it, setting up a manageable third down.
Well, manageable on paper, anyway. I'm not entirely sure what this play is. It looks like some type of shallow cross concept, where one receiver runs a shallow crossing route and another receiver runs a dig route over the top of him. This may have been a variation known as drive, where the shallow cross and the dig route come from the same side of the field, rather than from opposite sides, as they do in the normal shallow play. It could also be levels, where the receivers run inward-breaking routes at different levels to create a vertical stretch on zone defenders. Houston was in man so it's most likely drive. The safety slips and the mid-level receiver is open, but it's another terrible throw by Finley, although he was under duress here. Another three and out.
Auburn's defense held again and got the ball back to the offense, which finally started to get some things going on its third possession. They opened the drive with a play I don't recall seeing this season. This looks like buck sweep, one of the core plays of Gus Malzahn's offense, where two interior linemen pull to block for the RB on a sweep. I won't elaborate too much further, as a much smarter person has already described the play in detail on this very website. Auburn uses orbit motion here, which ought to look very familiar, as that was Gus' preferred method of running the play:
However, instead of faking to the motion man after the handoff, Auburn runs it as a true RPO, with Finley reading a backside defender to determine whether to hand off on the sweep or throw a screen to the motion man based on the action of the backside defensive end. He makes the correct read and hands off to Tank for a good gain. It's possible that this play was pin-and-pull outside zone, rather than buck sweep, since the tackle and center pull instead of the two guards, but given that the tackle ends up kicking out the DE, I think this is buck sweep.
The next play was another RPO, combining an inside zone run (specifically the "slice" variation where the H-back blocks an interior defender on the frontside) and a hitch or stick route on the backside. This may have been a post-snap RPO, with Finley reading a specific defender for run or pass, but I think it was a pre-snap RPO, with Finley deciding whether to hand off or throw based on the defense's alignment (specifically, the alignment of the playside linebacker) before the snap. It's the same principle regardless: if the PSLB stays wide, Auburn has six blockers for six defenders in the box, so it should be a handoff; if he comes down into the box, the numbers advantage should be outside. Whether it was pre- or post-snap, it's the correct read and it's good for the Tigers' first first down of the game.
On the ensuing first down, Harsin went back to the under center jet sweep package, this time running the sweep with the criminally-underutilized Malcolm Johnson Jr. The young man is rewarded for his patience, as he gets good blocking from the twin TEs on the perimeter and would have probably been gone if not for a shoestring tackle by the Houston defender.
Auburn came right back to that series on the next play, but they may have gone back to the well too quickly. This is the same play as the first play of the game, split zone off of jet motion. Despite just having been gashed by the jet sweep, the defense isn't fooled and the play goes nowhere due to poor blocking on the frontside.
Despite that poor first down play, Auburn managed to convert a third and medium to get into Houston territory. However, on the subsequent first down, Harsin gets a bit too cute, opting for a flanker around off of split zone action (it's not an end around if the player isn't an end, this is a pet peeve of mine). This probably triggered some PTSD due to its similarity to Gus' statue of liberty play, which also never worked. However, I'd argue this design is actually worse, since tossing the ball to the flanker instead of handing it off decreases the misdirection and forces the receiver to take his eyes off the defense to ensure he catches the ball, which isn't the case when it's a handoff. Regardless, the defense wasn't fooled and the play wasn't going anywhere anyway.
Facing a passing situation on second down, Harsin dials up a quick throw to the outside off of play-action. It's a simple play, with one receiver running a 12-yard out route and another running a flare route, giving the QB a straightforward high-low read on the flat zone defender, similar to a smash concept. This concept goes by various names, since almost every team runs some version of it; for example, the air raid guys call it "shakes" (although their version usually has a corner or sail route rather than a deep out). Finley makes a good read and a good throw on the out route (a rarity, as you'll later see) to get Auburn a manageable third down. Also note the use of 21 personnel with Jarquez and Tank on the field at the same time. Seems like something Auburn should use more often.
Auburn got a free conversion on that third down thanks to an offsides penalty against Houston. On the next play, Auburn goes back under center and runs outside zone, one of the first times I recall seeing them run outside zone from under center all year. Under center outside zone was a staple of Harsin's Boise offenses, so it's not surprising to see it from him here. Tank makes a good cutback and it's a good play.
In a bit of foreshadowing, Auburn had a 2nd and 2 after a successful first down run and failed to convert despite having three cracks at it. On second down, Harsin decides to try to take advantage of being ahead of the chains by taking an end zone shot, which I don't have a problem with. This is a fade smash concept off of play-action. The end zone fade is rightly ballyhooed as an ineffective, overused play, but running it off of a smash concept from 20 yards out is much better than a speculative jump ball in a goal-to-go situation in my view. Smash is generally used against teams that are playing cover 2, but in this case, Houston is in man coverage. Finley makes one of his best throws of the day, dropping it right into Kobe Hudson's breadbasket, but he can't get a foot down. I don't mind that overthrow though; if you're going to miss on a fade route, it's better to miss long, because an underthrown fade is almost always an easy interception.
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After getting stuffed on third down, Harsin decided to go for it on 4th and 2. By the math, this is the correct decision, and it's a good playcall as well: Harsin knew Houston would probably be in man coverage and went with a quintessential man-beater concept, mesh. Two receivers run shallow crossing routes from opposite sides, crossing as close to each other as they can without running into each other and creating a natural rub, which is why it's so good against man coverage. This is a modern variation on the play, where the outside receiver runs a sit route behind the mesh rather than the traditional post or corner route as was the standard in the original air raid offense and the BYU offenses from which it was derived. I don't know if this variation has a specific name, but it's very popular at the college level, with Steve Sarkisian and Jeff Grimes among its notable practitioners. Finley makes a good read to find the open man but it's not a great throw and a very frustrating turnover on downs. Fear not, dear reader, there's more where that came from.
After a Houston field goal extended their lead to 10, Auburn came back out on the next possession with an incompletion and a short completion off an RPO, setting up a third and medium. Harsin dials up a RB screen into the boundary, and his timing couldn't have been better, as Houston brought pressure from the boundary, leaving themselves completely exposed; this may have been a tendency the coaches picked up on during film study. Tank gets some good downfield blocking and picks up Auburn's biggest gain of the entire day.
Auburn followed up that huge play by going back to the buck sweep RPO, but with a bit of a different look this time. Instead of the orbit motion screen they used earlier in the game, this is just a regular bubble screen out of a trips look. The read is the same though; the backside edge player is left unblocked, and the QB will hand off if the DE stays home and throw the bubble if he chases the sweep. He kinda just sits here, giving a cloudy read, but Auburn had a numbers advantage on the perimeter, so throwing was a good decision either way. Interestingly, Tank is lined up as the slot receiver, and he takes it down into the red zone for another first down.
After two unsuccessful running plays, Auburn faced a third and long. Harsin dials up mesh here, but Houston is able to get pressure, forcing Finley to bail out of the pocket early. Unlike his predecessor, Finley is not proficient in throwing on the move, and it's an ugly short-armed ball to a receiver who probably wouldn't have gotten the first down anyway. Unfortunately, the early pressure prevented Finley from seeing that his RB was wide open on the backside and would have scored easily. C'est la vie. General Patton hits the short field goal and Auburn is on the board.
Auburn forced Houston to punt and correctly used two timeouts to give the offense just over 90 seconds to score before the half. Harsin calls a post-wheel concept here, which is similar to the switch verts concept Auburn had already run a couple of times; the outside receiver runs a deep post while the inside receiver runs a wheel route. The goal is for the post to pull the deep zone defender toward the center of the field, allowing the QB to hit the wheel route in the space he vacated; if the deep zone defender stays home, the post should be open. Houston is actually in man here, and there's no safety help over the top, so Finley makes a good read to go to the wheel and puts the ball in a perfect spot for a big gain to start the drive.
However, as is often the case, Finley followed up a great pass with a terrible one. Auburn went with that out/flare concept again, and the flare route was open, but Finley throws it into the dirt. That out route to the wide side of the field is a tough throw even for the best QBs, but you can't leave it short like that, because it's probably a pick six if the DB is in better position than he was here.
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After a short completion on second down, Auburn went right back to that concept, this time to the boundary, and Finley makes a good throw for the conversion.
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Following two straight incompletions, Auburn faced 3rd and 10 from the Houston 45, and botched it in calamitous fashion. Finley tries to check the play at the line, but Jalil Irvin misinterprets his signals and snaps the ball while Finley is trying to audible, forcing him to fall on the ball and killing Auburn's chances of getting points before the half. Just an inexcusable mental mistake, especially at this stage of the season. No gif here, you don't want to watch it again and neither do I.
Auburn got the ball to start the second half and opened with a quick screen. This play used motion with the H back to get him in position to block the CB, who would be responsible for the receiver, a tactic frequently used in Gus Malzahn's offense as well. It's a good design, albeit a slightly predictable one, and a good gain to start the half.
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On second and short, Auburn went with an old favorite, the outside zone/bubble RPO, where the QB reads a backside defender to decide whether to hand off or throw. In this case, it's the backside DE, so it's essentially the same read as the buck sweep RPO we looked at earlier. Finley makes the correct read and hands it off to Tank, who turns it into another positive play. Note that the inside receiver in the bunch set to the left, the guy who runs the bubble, is a TE rather than a WR. More on that later.
Auburn continues to feed Tank on the next play. This is duo, which is essentially "power without a pulling guard". The goal is to get double teams on the playside defensive linemen and allow the back to find the open gap, rather than sending him through a specific gap like a standard power play; in that sense, it's almost a hybrid of a gap and a zone run. It's blocked well and Tank finds a running lane for another explosive run. It can be hard to distinguish duo from inside zone in real time, but the key is to look at the offensive line's first steps: if everyone steps in the same direction, toward the frontside of the play, it's probably zone; if not, it's probably duo.
Back in the red zone for the third time, Auburn goes with a play that's delivered in clutch situations on multiple occasions this year, most notably in the Penn State and LSU games: the toss sweep with a fake reverse. However, it looks like the timing is a bit off and the toss comes out a bit awkwardly; in any case, Houston reads the play well and it's a TFL. The deeper alignment of the flanker here was weird and may have tipped Houston off that something was up. Auburn followed with two straight incompletions, leading to another field goal. Fortunately, settling for field goals in the red zone has never come back to bite Auburn before, so I'm sure it'll be fine.
Mirroring Auburn's profligacy, Houston's offense continued to sputter and gave the ball right back to the Tigers. After a short gain on first down, Auburn took a deep shot with a seam route to the tight end and Finley is able to hit Shenker in stride for a big gain. I'm not entirely sure what this play was, but it looked like a basic hitch-seam concept, with the outside receiver running a hitch and the inside receiver running the seam. It may have been the fade smash concept discussed above, but Shenker's route doesn't look like a fade. Regardless, a nice play to set the Tigers up with another opportunity in Houston territory.
Auburn got nine yards on the next two plays to set up a 3rd and 1, which was a perfect illustration of why I hate the traditional QB sneak. When you run a QB sneak, you're asking your QB to generate forward momentum from a flat-footed position and you're asking your offensive line to generate movement against a defensive line that usually has every gap filled with players in four-point stances. You're asking your players to do things that are physically difficult to do against a defense that knows what's coming, which is the exact opposite of what you should be doing as a playcaller. A lot of teams try to get clever and run it from a spread formation or use some type of motion like Harsin does here, but the players you're trying to remove from the box by going spread or misdirect with motion aren't the guys who are going to stop the play; you're still telling your OL to move the big boys whose sole responsibility is to get low and fill their gaps. It's a bold strategy, Cotton, let's see if it pays off.
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Oh. I see. By contrast, on the subsequent 4th and 1, Harsin does what a good playcaller should do: give his players an advantage by doing something unexpected. The defense is geared up for another sneak, so instead of a sneak, he goes with a jet sweep. Since the defense has four down linemen in the A and B gaps, it's easy to get the limited number of perimeter defenders blocked and pick up the necessary yardage. Football is easy when you don't make it hard on yourself.
Anyway, back to making it hard on yourself. On the next play, Auburn tries to take an end zone shot (I think). I can't tell what concept this is, but it doesn't really matter because Luke Deal completely whiffs on his block and it results in a sack. Brutal.
However, Auburn manages to come back from that self-inflicted wound on the next play. This is another switch vert concept, and once again, the DB misplayed it by trying to jump what he thought was an out route. It's really not a good throw by Finley, but Ja'Varrius Johnson goes down to dig it out of the dirt, and after yet another interminable review, it's a first and goal for the Tigers.
After a first down run was stopped for no gain, Harsin pulls out one of the most bizarre playcalls I've seen since Gus tried to use Chandler Cox as a single wing tailback against Clemson in 2016. Auburn goes with 12 personnel and runs a jet sweep with...Shenker. A tight end. A jet sweep with a tight end. I can't even begin to grasp the logic behind this play design, and it works about as well as you'd expect it to. If you can figure out the thought process that led to this playcall, then you're a lot smarter than me.
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Thankfully, Auburn avoided becoming a meme for that playcall, as they scored on the next play. Harsin went back to the post-wheel concept that had yielded a big gain late in the second quarter. Houston looks like they're in quarters coverage here. The deep zone defender follows the post route and the underneath zone defender bites on what he thinks is a quick out, leaving the wheel wide open. I'm not sure if Houston was pattern-matching here, since the DB bit on the same route a few plays earlier, or if the DB just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar twice. Also, note that the post route by Shenker, the #3 receiver on that side, pulls three defenders, including both safeties, back to the middle of the field. The safety couldn't have helped on the wheel route, but his decision to chase the inside route left the deep zone defender isolated in a two-on-one situation. Teams will often add these types of middle-of-the-field routes to the concepts they use to attack two-deep zone coverages, such as smash. It's a nice design, Finley makes the right read, and Kobe Hudson makes a nice toe-tapping catch for the Tigers' first and only touchdown of the game.
Houston threw a ghastly pick on their next possession, but avoided being pinned deep in their own territory due to a questionable (at best) targeting call on Smoke Monday during the return. Auburn goes back to its under center series, first with a solid gain on inside zone on first down...
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...and then with an explosive play on a jet sweep on second down.
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Now in Houston territory, Harsin pulls out a nicely-designed screen. This play uses the defense's natural response to jet motion against them, luring them into chasing the motion man to one side of the field while the offense runs a screen to the other side. You might recall a famous play from a few years back that used this same principle...
However, back in 2021, this play isn't executed nearly as well, as the blocking for the screen doesn't really get set up and the defense is able to make the play and avoid what could have been a big gain.
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After a second-down pass went nowhere, Auburn faced a third and medium situation. Harsin calls Y-cross, which is similar to the flood concept, with a three receiver deep-to-short progression read on one side of the field. However, unlike the flood concept where the receivers are (usually) all on the same side, on Y-cross, the short and deep routes are on the front side, while the middle route comes from a deep cross from the inside receiver on the backside. The outside receiver on the backside usually runs a post in case the safety comes flying up to jump the deep cross. Like flood, it's primarily a zone-beater concept, but Houston is in man here. Finley doesn't really get through his progression due to the pressure and just tries to beat the man coverage by throwing the quick out. It's a bad throw, but the receiver wasn't really open anyway. Auburn was forced to punt.
Auburn's fourth quarter offensive woes from the latter part of the season unfortunately continued into the bowl game, and once again, they cost the Tigers a win. Auburn had two possessions in the early part of the fourth quarter where they could have put the game away with a score, or at least run off a good bit of the clock to put more pressure on Houston.
On the first possession, Auburn managed one first down and got themselves into a 3rd and 1 situation at midfield that should have been an easy conversion. This is just a power G play, with the playside tackle and TEs blocking down, the playside guard pulling to block the playside LB, and the FB kicking out the playside DE. Houston flows aggressively to the ball and is able to outnumber Auburn at the point of attack, so the play goes nowhere. You can't even blame this one on the offensive line; Houston knew what was coming and got there first with the most men, and even the best offensive line won't succeed when they're outnumbered. I guess Mike Bobo wasn't solely to blame for Auburn's predictable playcalling in important situations.
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After Houston threw another disastrous pick on an ill-conceived double pass, Auburn had good field position with under eight minutes to go, so Harsin decided to go for the jugular. I don't have a problem with this decision, and it really should have worked. This is just a straightforward deep shot off of play-action. There's no read here; the receiver on the go route is the only option for the QB. Auburn fakes an inside run off of jet motion, Tarvarish Dawson burns the DB to break open for a potentially game-sealing touchdown...and Finley overthrows him by five yards.
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After that disappointment, a second down run got stuffed, leaving Auburn with a third and long. Auburn goes back to the switch vert concept that had served them well throughout the game. Malcolm Johnson Jr. has a step on the receiver, but Finley overthrows him too, and Auburn wastes a prime opportunity to put the game away. I wonder if that will come back to haunt them.
...yep. After an egregious uncalled intentional grounding and an even more egregious uncalled hold allowed Houston to take the lead, Auburn had three and a half minutes to get down the field and score a game-winning touchdown. Maybe TJ Finley could engineer some more late game heroics like he did against Georgia State? The drive got off to a promising start, as Auburn went with duo and Tank picked up 8 yards, setting up a 2nd and 2. Three chances to get two yards with a RB who's averaging 6 YPC? Easy.
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On second down, Auburn tries to take a shot downfield while they're ahead of the chains. Sure, why not. This is just a clearout wheel route; the playside receivers are trying to run off their defenders to open up the RB on the wheel, and I don't think Finley was ever looking anywhere else. However, it doesn't fool the defense, and Finley channels Ludacris with a throw into a different area code.
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Okay, that's fine, still two cracks to pick it up and keep the drive alive with plenty of time on the clock. Auburn lines up in a quads set for the first time all game, then motions Tank from the slot across the formation, similar to the look they used on the touchdown pass to Jarquez Hunter against LSU. Again, this looks like a clearout, with Finley only looking for a single receiver while the other receivers try to run off their men to open up space for him. Kobe Hudson finds some grass past the sticks...and Finley underthrows him.
Well, okay, still one more chance though. Auburn sets up a double slant pattern on the trips side, Kobe Hudson is open for the first down again, and...
...yeah. The throw was a bit high, but Hudson probably should have caught it anyway. Three straight passes with two yards to go, three straight incompletions, and a turnover on downs. What a perfect way for Auburn's season to end: another dismal, failed comeback attempt after yet another blown fourth quarter lead.
That sequence aside, I think Harsin called a decent game. There were some well-designed and well-timed plays in there. Some of the characteristically "Boise" elements were on display, including the use of numerous formations and pre-snap motions and a zone-heavy running game. There were a few playcalls I'd characterize as grab-bagging, but it seemed like Auburn had a decent read on the Houston defense overall, especially in terms of situational playcalling, and there were quite a few plays that should have worked but weren't executed correctly.
As we saw in this game, playcalling can only do so much to disguise a terrible offensive line and dreadful QB play. The offensive line only allowed one sack, but Auburn only managed a middling 4.3 YPC, while Finley completed just 51% of his passes with a putrid 6.1 YPA. I don't understand why Harsin persisted with Finley down the stretch of this season (including playing him injured) rather than giving Dematrius Davis a chance. He gave a backup transfer QB a much longer leash than his third-year starter, which is baffling to me. It's clear that Auburn will need to find a new starting QB, along with some offensive line help, in the transfer portal if they're going to have any chance of fielding an offense capable of competing in the SEC next season.
The Birmingham Bowl was an ugly end to Auburn's worst season in a decade, and the offense shoulders the vast majority of the blame for the team's embarrassing collapse down the stretch. Harsin has to turn things around quickly on the offensive side of the ball if he's going to have a successful tenure at Auburn. If the offense doesn't take a significant step forward next season, he might find his seat getting a bit warm.