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Making the Case: How Lane Kiffin Shredded Auburn's Defense

There's not much to say about this Auburn team that hasn't already been said at this point. Bryan Harsin has been quiet quitting all season and his team is playing like it. I'm not going to bother talking about their performance because I don't care and neither do you. What we do care about is who will be replacing Bryan Harsin in a few weeks, and, of course, one of the most popular choices was standing on the opposing sideline today. So how did Lane Kiffin's interview for Bryan Harsin's job go?

Pretty damn well. Ole Miss ran up 570 yards, 448 of which were on the ground, the worst performance against the run by an Auburn defense in over 20 years. Obviously, this Auburn defense is abysmal against the run, mostly because our linebackers and safeties have no idea what gap discipline is and frequently run themselves out of plays, leaving wide open running lanes (Lanes?). It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to carve up this defense, but the way Kiffin did it tells us a lot about his offensive philosophy and approach to the game that may be of interest to Auburn fans for the aforementioned reasons. So with that, let's dive in to how he did it.

In general terms, Ole Miss' offense is pretty standard in terms of how it's structured: an up-tempo, 11 personnel spread offense, which has become the offensive meta in college football over the last few years. So what makes his offense stand apart from the rest? Well, really, a lot of it is superficial. Ole Miss really only used a handful of concepts against Auburn: inside zone, zone read, power, counter, jet sweep, and draw, the basic concepts that make up most college run games. However, they change up the presentation of these plays in creative ways, using different formations, motions, option and RPO reads, and backfield actions to confuse and displace Auburn defenders (not that that's hard to do, since they take care of it themselves most of the time).

Auburn's defensive "gameplan" as much as there was one was pretty standard as well. Auburn spent most of the game in the typical four-down nickel look, playing straight quarters against 10 personnel and some type of single-high pattern-matching coverage against 11 and 12 personnel. Most teams will gladly run the ball against two-high looks like quarters because they have equal numbers in the box (5 on 5 or 6 on 6), but when the defense gets into single-high looks, they're able to get an additional player into the box that the offense doesn't have a blocker for. This player has to be accounted for by some other means, whether it's by misdirecting him or reading him on an option or RPO. The way the offense deals with that player is where things get interesting, and the variety of ways Ole Miss found to do it speaks to Kiffin's offensive acumen.

Without further ado, let's get into the film. After Auburn and Ole Miss traded turnovers in the first quarter, the Rebels found themselves set up in Auburn territory, with first and ten on the Tigers' 46. The Rebels set up under center, with two tight ends in a wing alignment to the left, something you might associate more with Bryan Harsin's offense than Lane Kiffin's. However, there's a concrete reason for this: presenting the defense with a four-man blocking surface is annoying, especially for an odd-front team like Auburn because there isn't a natural way for them to adjust to cover the extra gap.

Here, however, the main idea is just to have blockers there for a perimeter run. They bring the slot receiver in motion to the left and run the jet sweep, with the two tight ends making good blocks on the perimeter defenders to spring him for a first down. Check out what the rest of the offensive line is doing though. You'll note they're not actually blocking like a normal jet sweep, where they'd be trying to reach the linemen and get to the second level; they're just blocking inside zone to the right. The point of this is to get the linebackers to read inside zone and stay home to fill their gaps, which, for once, Auburn's linebackers do, to their own detriment. (The play names in the diagram are my own terminology, I have no idea what Ole Miss calls these plays.)

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Ole Miss follows up that big play by lining up quickly and taking a shot at the end zone off play-action. They line up with two receivers to the right and bring the outside receiver in motion to the inside spot, which is designed to mess with the defensive backs' rules that tell them who's responsible for whom. I'm not going to get into the weeds on that, though, since this isn't really about the Ole Miss passing game. They're running a variation of the Yankee concept here, a very popular play-action concept in which one receiver runs a deep post while a receiver runs a deep crossing route underneath him in the opposite direction. It's primarily designed to attack single-high coverages by getting the safety to bite on the crossing route, opening up the post behind him, similar to tagging a post off Y Cross. Here they add the motion and a second deep crossing route, to add further difficulties for the deep zone defenders to deal with. Honestly, I can't tell what coverage Auburn is in here, but it ends up being cover none, and the deep post is wide open for an easy touchdown.

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After Robby Ashford just kind of...dropped the ball and sacked himself, Ole Miss found themselves back near midfield. After Auburn's pass rush was able to sack Jaxson Dart on first down, the Rebels were facing 2nd and 12. Again, this isn't a study of the Ole Miss passing game, but it's a good play so it's worth looking at. Ole Miss is in a 2x2 spread set, inducing Auburn to play quarters. The concept here is fade/out to the left, where #1 runs a fade and #2 runs an out, as you might imagine. The QB is technically reading fade to out, but the idea is really for the fade to pull the deep defenders away and open up the out. That's exactly what happens here. Auburn's soft coverage and a...half-hearted drop into the hook-to-flat zone by Derick Hall left the out wide open for a first down.

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Two plays later, again facing second and long, Ole Miss dialed up a play that should look very familiar to Auburn fans, because it was a staple of the Gus Malzahn era. The Rebels lined up in an unbalanced formation, with three linemen, a receiver, and two backs to the right and a single receiver to the left. They bring that single receiver in motion and fake power read, while running a post-wheel concept on the perimeter. If you ask defensive coordinators what their least favorite play to defend is, they'll probably tell you it's post-wheel off jet motion, because properly defending it means the defensive backs have to disobey all their keys for stopping jet sweep. Normally, on jet sweep, the RB would be blocking the corner, but here he shows that block and then runs the wheel and is, in technical football terms, wide ass open for a first down.

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This next one is just nasty. Ole Miss lines up in a funky formation, unbalanced with three receivers and an H-back to the left and only the RB to the right. I think they were hoping Auburn would misalign to this, which doesn't really happen, but it's a great play design too. They're running GH QB counter to the nub side, a staple of the Gus Malzahn era; the front side of the offensive line blocks down, the backside guard pulls and kicks the playside defensive end, and the H-back leads through the hole to block the linebacker. However, Ole Miss turns this into an RPO by sending the RB on a rail route up the sideline. I'm actually not sure who the conflict player was for this RPO because every Auburn defender bit on the run (although I think it was the corner), leaving the rail wide open for a free touchdown. This one had a very Sark vibe to it; that man loves the RB rail route.

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This play isn't all that interesting on its own but it is a chance to introduce one of Ole Miss' base concepts that will be presented in other ways later. Facing 2nd and 5, they line up in a pistol set with two receivers and an H-back to the left (field) side. The play here is just a basic bluff read. It looks like split zone, with the H-back coming across the formation to kick out the backside DE, but instead of blocking him, he fakes that block and goes to the second level to block the linebacker while the QB runs zone read off of that DE. It's a common constraint when the DE is pinching down hard against split zone. Here it's just a handoff up the middle for a first down. Not an eye-popping play, but a well-executed base play, something Auburn fans haven't seen much of from their own offense this season.

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On the second play of the second quarter, facing 3rd and 2 in the red zone, Ole Miss uses a similar look with inside zone out of the pistol. However, in this case, they're in an unbalanced set, and instead of reading the DE, it's just a straight give with jet motion, which successfully freezes the linebackers and allows Ole Miss' blockers to get to the second level and pave the way for the touchdown. You'll also note the use of the four-man blocking surface again; it's more useful in this situation, where Auburn is actually in their base odd front look.

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Auburn saw Ole Miss scoring these "touchdown" things and decided it looked fun, so they scored one of their own. Two of them, in fact! With the margin back down to 7, and almost into the middle 8 (shout out to Ferg), Ole Miss really needed to get some points to staunch the bleeding. On 1st and 10, they present Auburn's defense with a new look. This is GT counter, the same idea as the GH counter play discussed above, but with the backside tackle pulling to block the playside linebacker instead of the H-back. They add a bit of window dressing by bringing a receiver in motion from left to right. Usually you wouldn't want to motion a player to the side where you're running the ball, since that would usually pull more defenders there, but this has a purpose. Watch the safety on that side. He follows that motion man as he makes the most perfunctory of fakes showing a bubble screen, opening up the alley for the RB to run into, turning a solid run into an explosive one. Ole Miss would keep using this screen into the boundary look as a way to keep Auburn's perimeter defenders at bay throughout the game.

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Okay, so the purpose of this breakdown is mainly to show Lane Kiffin clowning on Bryan Harsin, but I had to put this in there because good lord. On 4th and 3, Ole Miss correctly decides to go for it because they're a well-coached team. The play call is Y corner off of bootleg action from the I formation with a snug alignment. Kind of an odd call when Auburn is probably going to be playing man, since corner isn't really a man beating concept, but whatever. This play design is fine, that's not why we're watching this play. You know why we're watching this play. This is the softest pass interference call I have ever seen. I can't even pretend that I cared about the outcome of this game, but come on ref.

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After the ill-begotten first and goal, Auburn held the Rebels for two plays, forcing the Rebels into a third and medium situation here. Ole Miss runs a play that I probably wouldn't have considered from this far out, but it worked. They show an empty bunch set (which gives me flashbacks to the disastrous game-sealing pick against LSU), however, the guys in the bunch set aren't really part of the pattern. Ole Miss brings the single receiver to the left in orbit motion behind the QB and sends him on a swing route. Auburn is in man coverage here, which means that somebody will have to come from inside out to cover the swing. The three receivers in the bunch all run in-breaking routes, not really trying to get open, but trying to muck things up and keep the man who should be covering the swing from getting over there in time; using motion gives him even more of an advantage since he's already running full speed at the snap. The design was good, but honestly I'm not sure if it really mattered. I'm not sure who was supposed to get there to cover the swing, and I'm not sure Auburn knew either. More poor play from the second level of Auburn's defense combined with a clever play design leads to another easy Ole Miss touchdown.

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After Tank Bigsby broke off a huge run to close the lead to four, Ole Miss found themselves sweating a bit after having led 21-0 and needing a score to stop Auburn's momentum. On the first play of the ensuing drive, the Rebels go back to their bread and butter, bluff read out of a pistol set. There isn't anything unique about the run itself (although it's well executed), but I want to point out what the receivers are doing, because it indicates the thought that goes into the design of a good offense.

The receiver on the left is in a snug alignment. On this play, instead of blocking the corner, he's going to block down on the outside linebacker (known as a crack block) to seal him inside, while the H-back wrapping around is going to block the corner. Changing up these assignments is a way to mess with the defense's ability to read the play, and it leaves the corner with a blocking matchup he was never going to win.

On the other side, Ole Miss has twins into the boundary, and like the play I noted earlier, they run a pedal screen (a bubble screen with the receiver backpedaling, which is an easier throw for the QB than the traditional bubble screen, which is a deceptively hard throw). I'm not sure exactly what Dart was actually told to do here, but it's a chance to talk about pre-snap RPOs generally. Post-snap RPOs are fairly straightforward: you have a run and a pass route called and the QB hands off or throws based on the action of the conflict player. Pre-snap RPOs (sometimes known as pre-snap looks or PSLs) are generally based on the alignment of the defense or the leverage of a particular defender. In some cases, this is as simple as throwing a hitch route if the corner is playing soft on a receiver. In this case, with a screen, it's generally based on the alignment of the outside linebacker or safety (referred to as the apex player); usually the QB is told that if the apex is lined up far enough inside to give the receivers leverage, he should throw the screen, and if he's not, he'll ignore that and run the play as normal after the snap. I suspect they weren't actually going to throw this into the boundary, because he had leverage and could have thrown it, but Ole Miss did this into the boundary consistently so there must have been some logic behind it. Hope you enjoyed this 250-word digression about something that didn't happen. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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This next play is a good example of a few of the things I've talked about coming together: a PSL, clean execution of a base play, and horrible gap discipline by the Auburn defense. Ole Miss is in their base grouping, 11 personnel with three receivers and two backs stacked on one side. The play is zone insert, a variation on inside zone where the backside tackle kicks out the backside end and the H-back inserts himself into the middle of the line (hence the name) and blocks the linebackers. It's a basic play, but I want to note two things. First, at the top, you have the fade/out combo we discussed before as a PSL, which Dart ignored since the SS was aligned right over the receiver and it wasn't going to be open. Secondly, watch Zion Puckett, aligned as the boundary safety. He's responsible for the backside B gap after the tackle blocks the DE outward, but he allows himself to be sucked too far into the center of the line and the RB is able to cut back into the wide open gap and sprint past him. Auburn's defense in a nutshell.

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On literally the next play it happens again. In this case, it's split zone from a pistol alignment, but it's the same problem. Auburn's defense pursues too far to the front side of the play, the RB cuts back, and there's a huge gap to run through. I'm not sure if this was the RB reading the defense and cutting back or if it was a designed windback, but it was there because Auburn's second-level defenders have never heard the words "gap discipline" before.

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Later in the same drive, Ole Miss faced a 3rd and 3 in the red zone. I didn't include many three-yard runs in this article, but it's worth noting both because it's a crucial conversion and because it's a really good design and shows how Kiffin shows the defense a completely different play while keeping things exactly the same for his blockers. This is the GT counter play we saw previously, but instead of just handing it off, Jaxson Dart is going to read the backside defensive end and either run the counter (if he stays home) or toss the ball to the running back (if the end pinches). He tosses it to the RB and the blocking on the perimeter honestly isn't great, but it's enough to get the first down. This isn't a new design by any means (Chad Morris was running this at Clemson nearly a decade ago) but it's a great way to get more mileage out of one of your base run concepts with a minimal amount of new teaching.

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After settling for a field goal and then regaining possession through a surprise onside kick, Ole Miss faced a third and long just on their own side of midfield. This play is as much about scouting and gameplanning as it is play design. Kiffin knew from scouting that this was a down and position on the field where Auburn likes to bring pressure from the field and in response calls a QB draw. Right on cue, the Auburn blitzers run right past Dart as he takes off for a first down.

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Later on the same drive, facing another third down, Ole Miss shows yet another look off of the same GT counter scheme we just discussed. They line up in a four receiver set, then flip the running back from one side to the other (an annoying tactic that's underutilized, in my opinion, because it forces the defense to adjust their run strength on the fly). In this case, it's used to get the defensive front into the alignment they wanted for the play. This is GT counter read, specifically what's known as bash read. Back away (BAsh) concepts are popular with spread teams against defenses that want to set their defensive line away from the back, since that's the side most shotgun runs will go to. By setting the back to run side and then running to the other, they're able to displace those defenders and give themselves better blocking angles. Here, the running back heads to the left on a sweep path while the offensive line blocks GT counter to the right. Dart is reading the backside defensive end here (the side the sweep is going to); if the defensive end pinches, he'll hand off on the sweep, and if he stays home, he'll keep the ball and run the counter. Here the defensive end chases the RB, leaving Dart with tons of running room and leading to a big gain.

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The play that finished off that drive isn't anything new, but again it shows the elements we've been discussing coming together. It's zone insert with twins into the boundary and the pedal screen PSL. Being able to consistently execute your base plays and score touchdowns in the red zone, what a novel concept.

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After an Auburn touchdown, Ole Miss started the fourth quarter with a first down just on their side of midfield. Lane reaches into his back of tricks for a play that honestly shouldn't have worked but did due to some truly abysmal tackling from Auburn. They didn't really get out-schemed here, but it's cool so I'm throwing it in. This is just a reverse off of jet sweep. The slot receiver comes in motion, the QB hands it to him on the jet sweep, and he pitches it back to the receiver from the other side coming around on the reverse. The QB is actually the lead blocker for the reverse, but Zion Puckett sheds his block and...just misses the tackle. Ole Miss ends up getting a first down on a play that should've been stopped for no gain. Your 2022 Auburn Tigers, ladies and gentlemen.

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After an exchange of field goals, a pitch invasion, and a weather delay, we come back to a game where the only available camera angle is the all 22 (which is what I'd prefer to watch all the time). Just another day in God's conference. It's 2nd and 16, and honestly this was the most predictable outcome for this situation. Ole Miss runs the exact same QB draw we saw above, but this time with Auburn dropping into their default quarters coverage against 10 personnel rather than blitzing. There's plenty of time and space for the blocks to set up and Dart finds his way through for big gain. This is another case of knowing what your opponent is going to do based on formation and situation and attacking it.

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Alright, last one. This is the very next play, which basically iced the game for Ole Miss. Again, it's inside zone with a pedal screen as a PSL. Auburn has three guys lined up out wide to the right, so Dart knows the PSL is dead and he's going to hand it off. Auburn's commitment of so many defenders to the wide side of the field meant that Ole Miss had the numbers in the box, and with the help of both linebackers filling the wrong gaps, the B gap is wide open, the RB sprints through it, and there's nobody home. Ballgame.

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I don't plan to make a habit of writing 4,000 words about other teams kicking Auburn's ass, but I wanted to in this case because of the circumstances (potentially poaching the other team's coach) and the opportunity to talk about both what a good offense looks like and how a good offense takes advantage of a bad defense. The main takeaway from this is that good offense means having a defined set of base concepts and presenting those plays in a number of different ways by dressing them up with motions, option reads, and RPOs, giving the defense lots to deal with while keeping things simple for your own players. Combine that with tempo and...oh, hey, this sounds familiar, doesn't it? It's the same thing that was the identity of our offense in 2013 and 2014, and which Gus claimed was still the identity of our offense from 2015 to 2020. It's a philosophy that's already proven it can work at Auburn with good recruiting and good player development. If this game really was a job interview for Kiffin, I'd have to say that he made the case.

(Apologies if the diagrams are hard to read, I used an extremely high-tech method known as "drawing them by hand and taking pictures with my phone" because I'm the world's boomerest millennial.)

We're all just trying to have a good time here. Don't be a jerk, and we won't have a problem with you. War Eagle!

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