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A Routine Disaster: How Bryan Harsin's Coaching Mistakes Cost Auburn a Win (Again)

Like most Auburn alumni/fans, I woke up bright and early Sunday morning and checked my phone, hoping to see the words I've been waiting to see for a year an a half: "Auburn has fired head coach Bryan Harsin." Alas, it was not to be, and it seems we'll have to wait one more week for the axe to drop on the potato man and his spudlets. While a humiliating blowout in Athens will be a fitting way to send him out, it's abundantly clear after last night that Auburn needs to move on from Harsin. Auburn scored zero points in the second half for the second week in a row, which makes eight straight games against Power 5 opponents in which Auburn has scored six or fewer points in the second half. If this happened once, it would be a bad game; if it happened twice, it would be a statistical blip. When it happens eight times in a row over the course of two seasons, it's obvious there's a serious problem.

These types of second half disasters have become a matter of routine under Harsin. He's almost certainly going to be gone after next week, so it probably seems like dancing on his grave a bit to do an analysis of his failures, so I'm going to pass on the opportunity and let this end peacefully on my way to the cemetery with my tap-dancing shoes in hand. I could go back and do a general look at all eight of the games in this ignominious streak to show how the problems arose and haven't been fixed over time, but there was enough bad in Saturday night's game that it serves as a useful microcosm of the whole issue and analyzing it in isolation should suffice.

Auburn played about as well as you could have asked for for a quarter and a half against LSU on Saturday night. Robby Ashford threw two touchdown passes, while the Auburn defense shut down LSU's offense completely. However, everything changed with less than seven minutes to go in the first half, when Ashford was sacked, fumbled the ball, and LSU recovered it and ran it in for a touchdown. From that point on, Auburn seemingly couldn't do anything right, and even though LSU didn't play especially well and their coaches didn't really do a stellar job either, Auburn was unable to stop the familiar, inevitable collapse, culminating in a back-breaking pick that allowed LSU to run out the clock on the game, and, for all intents and purposes, the Bryan Harsin era at Auburn.

So, why did this happen, and why did it happen eight times in a row? Well, the simple answer is that Bryan Harsin is bad at coaching football. But beyond that obvious and rather glib answer, there are a few reasons that come back to the most basic elements of coaching: gameplanning and game management. Let's take a look at how Harsin's failures in all of these areas doomed Auburn against LSU, just as they had done (or should have done) in the seven previous games.

Gameplanning

First of all, let me point out that discussing gameplanning and playcalling required me to go back and rewatch this game so I could chart it, which was nothing short of torture and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. I had to intersperse it with some of the Ole Miss-Kentucky film, both to remind myself of what competent football actually looks like and to remind myself that there's hope out there for the future. I also went back and charted the first two drives of the Mizzou game to compare that with what we saw on Saturday, because seldom is the question asked: is our coaches learning?

The simple answer is no, not really. What we were running against LSU was certainly different than what we were running against Mizzou, but I'm not really sure I'd call it adaptation, because there was basically no carryover. Both games felt like a randomly-selected group of formations and plays that didn't really connect to or complement one another, which has been a persistent criticism of Harsin's offense throughout his tenure by the schematically-inclined among us. Chris Petersen once described the "Boise offense" by saying that they didn't run an offense, they ran plays, and Harsin has certainly proved that's the case. However, it turns out that that approach only works with a smart, skilled coach like Petersen running the show, and his large adult sons have never been able to recreate the magic elsewhere.

Auburn was more or less running the same basic concepts they've run for most of Harsin's tenure in both games: the run game was mostly inside zone (mainly in the form of split zone and bluff read), with a few draws and counters thrown in, as well as some wide zone (which we only ran from the pistol in both games). In the passing game, the play-action passes were mainly flood concepts and post/wheel, while the dropback mainly featured verts, snag, and some spacing concepts. In a vacuum, all of this is fine. These are some of the same concepts that most college offenses are built around these days; inside zone is the most common run concept in college football by a wide margin, while snag and verts are two of the most common dropbacks and post/wheel and flood are two of the most common play-action passes. No problem, right?

Eh, it turns out there is a problem. While these concepts are fine in and of themselves, the problem is that they don't really fit together in any logical way; they aren't designed to complement one another. For example, if you run split zone, it might make sense to have a play-action pass where you fake split zone and then run a bootleg to that side of the field. Or run bluff read off that split zone look if the DE is pinching inside. Or run an RPO with the H-back off split zone action. But there isn't really any rhyme or reason to Auburn's offense. The plays are just kind of there, called in an apparently random order with no attempt to set anything up.

Well, that could be a good thing, you might argue. It just means Auburn's offense is unpredictable. Unfortunately, that is very much not the case, and the LSU game was a pretty brutal object lesson in that. I noted several examples of formations or motions that Auburn only used to run one specific play, which is the opposite of unpredictable. I've illustrated six examples that I'll include here.

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I want to call your attention in particular to the second play on the first page. I don't know what Harsin calls this play, but it's a snag concept from an empty formation with a bunch look to one side and two receivers to the other. We ran this exact same play from this formation five times, and that was the only play we ran out of that formation. The first four passed without serious incident, with three completions for solid yardage and one incompletion.

However, the problem came on the fifth attempt, which was Auburn's final offensive play of the game.Watch #3, the LSU strong safety. He sees the formation, sees the primary route (the snag by the flanker), jumps the play before the ball is even out of Ashford's hand, and takes the ball away from the receiver, allowing LSU to run out the clock and ice the game.

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I'll let Greg Brooks tell you in his own words why he was able to make that play.

Wilson Alexander

@whalexander_

Greg Brooks said Auburn ran the same play six times before his interception.

"I knew it was coming," Brooks said.

It was only five times by my count, but whatever. Harsin's predictable play design allowed the defender to know what was coming before the ball was even snapped and turn into the primary receiver on the play. This was far from the only example of this problem, as my diagrams above show, but it was the most egregious and the most costly.

I also want to point out a couple of other failures that might get written off as poor execution, or which Harsin would probably love to have you believe are poor execution. Auburn turned the ball over four times against LSU. Two could conceivably be chalked up to individual mistakes (the strip sack and the muffed punt), but the other two are all coaching. The first was the interception I just went through above, and the other was the interception Koy Moore threw on the trick play in the fourth quarter, which I want to take a closer look at.

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This was the trick play Auburn was trying to run. Auburn lines up in an unbalanced formation and brings Koy Moore in motion to run a jet sweep. The idea is that the defense, particularly the corner covering Omari Kelly (the WR on the other side), will bite on the jet sweep, leaving Kelly wide open for Moore to throw it to him. Leaving aside the fact that Auburn had been moving the ball well on this drive, and that this is too clever by half, there's a problem with this play.

This specific play falls into a weird area in terms of the intentional grounding rules. The quarterback is, of course, allowed to throw the ball away as long as he's outside of the tackle box. However, this rule only applies to the player who takes the snap. If he hands the ball off or throws a lateral to another player who then tries to throw the ball, he can't throw it away, or it will be an automatic intentional grounding. That means that if the defense doesn't bite on the jet sweep, Moore either has to tuck it and run or get it close enough to Kelly that he would be considered "in the area" to avoid an intentional grounding penalty. Instead, this happened:

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All that's missing is the Benny Hill theme.

So what was the problem with this from a coaching perspective? It seems like Moore probably knows he can't just throw the ball away, but because there's only one receiver in the pattern, and he's covered, Moore has no real options. the defense is in his face, he's going to get stopped for a big loss, so he just kind of throws up a wounded duck for an easy interception. There should have been a second receiver somewhere for him to check down to, or, at the very least, some concrete instruction on how to get rid of the ball if the play isn't there. Clearly, neither of those things is available to him, and what should've been at least three points turns into a series of embarrassing crowd reaction gifs.

This was the snafu that grabbed the most attention, but the plays on either side of it also reflected poor coaching of relatively basic elements of the game. On the previous play, Auburn had attempted to run bluff read (zone read with the H-back blocking the LB), but Ashford fumbled the ball after the mesh with the RB. Eh, he's a redshirt freshman in his second start, it happens, right? But on the first play of the very next possession after the interception, Auburn attempts to run the power read play I diagrammed above, with the same result: a fumble after the mesh. Auburn was lucky enough to recover both of them, but the repeated failures to execute a fundamental skill really speak to the lack of attention to detail that's gone into coaching those plays. It doesn't reflect well on the coaching staff when players struggle with basic aspects of the game in the fifth week of the season.

Harsin's deficiencies in offensive play design and gameplanning are pretty clear at this point. The fact that he puts such an incoherent, yet predictable offense on the field, with little obvious carryover from game to game, is a damning indictment of his gameplanning. Auburn's inevitable second half collapses are full of plays that worked earlier in the game getting stopped because the defense adjusted to what the offense was doing and picked up on its obvious tendencies, and Harsin being left with no answers because his plays don't complement one another: once the defense stops that play, it's stopped.

The most important thing you can do as an offensive coach is know how the defense is going to counter your base plays and have a counter to their counter, but Harsin has consistently failed to do that, leading to the most damning statistic: eight straight games against P5 opponents where Auburn has scored six or fewer points in the second half. That's absolutely horrendous, and that figure alone is more than enough justification for Harsin finding himself in the unemployment line next week. However, that isn't even the most egregious or consistent of his coaching failures. Which leads us into...

Game Management

Regardless of whether you're a "hands on" coach who's involved in the playcalling on gameday or a "CEO" coach who tends to turn things over to your assistants, game management is your primary responsibility. Things like fourth downs, clock management, etc. Harsin has continuously made fundamental mistakes in this area that have cost us games, and there were a couple of major examples in this game that I'm going to point out, one of which you probably already know and the other you may not have picked up on.

First, though, let me point out the "mistakes" I'm not going to criticize him for, because they weren't mistakes. You were probably expecting me to talk about the two fourth down attempts in the third quarter, when Auburn went for a 4th and 10 and failed and then went for a 4th and 11 and was bailed out by a defensive penalty. Both of those decisions were actually fine. They were complete toss-ups in terms of the numbers (the win probability was 55% for punting and 54% for going in the first instance, and 49% for both options in the second). We were probably outside field goal range for post-injury Anders Carlson, whom I feel really bad for, so the only real choices were punt or go for it. When the numbers don't give you the answer, you should revert to the fundamental principles underlying them: possession is more valuable than field position, so try to maintain possession. Besides, a punt gets you at most 36 yards of field position, and there's a good chance you only end up getting 17. Giving up possession for 17 yards of field position is a very bad deal.

Before I get to the other mistake you know I'm going to mention, I do want to point out a more minor one that you may have missed. On Auburn's first possession of the second half, they started at their own 33 and went three and out after a run for no gain, an incompletion, and a screen that picked up eight yards. If you put that Auburn degree to good use and do the math there, you'll find that Auburn faced a 4th and 2 from its own 41. Harsin chose to punt here, which is a very bad decision any way you look at it. There's no need to even bring win probability into the equation here. The math shows that you should always go for it on 4th at 2 once you pass your own ~28 yard line. Kicking here made no sense, although it ultimately didn't matter as LSU was forced to punt it right back to Auburn.

No, the bigger problem, and the one you all knew was coming, came right before the first of those fourth and long attempts. Harsin, for reasons known only to him and God, left the offense on the field, and then decided to call timeout before they could snap the ball, only to send the offense right back out there after the timeout. This is such a comical game management error that I still can't believe it happened. You have to know before you even get to that fourth down that if you don't get anything on third down, you're going to go for it, and be ready to get the play in. Using timeouts on offense in a close game is terrible game management, and this game provided a perfect object lesson as to why. After the aforementioned pick by Greg Brooks, LSU got the ball with just over two minutes left in the game, needing one first down to ice it. Auburn, however, only had two timeouts left, meaning that if the defense had been able to get a stop, the offense probably would've had a minute, at most, to work with, versus closer to 1:40 to work with if they'd had three timeouts. In the end, it didn't matter, because the defense couldn't get a stop, but you have to have those timeouts available in that situation in a close game. Harsin has repeatedly made these kinds of mistakes, and it's bitten us time and time again as we've lost games from winning positions.

Oh, and just for extra funsies, on those two fourth down attempts, he called the exact same play. Three verticals and a drag route, leaving Ashford the option of either throwing five yards short of the sticks or joining the Rex Grossman Fan Club.

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In the end, there probably wasn't much of a point in me writing this. 99% of Auburn fans have realized by now that Bryan Harsin is very bad at his job and completely out of his depth in the SEC, and it's unlikely that he'll be here this time next week. However, I thought it was worth pointing out how routine these kinds of disasters have become. The infamous meltdown in Baton Rouge that almost cost Gus Malzahn his job in 2017 would've been an era-defining cataclysm had he not pulled two wins against Georgia and Alabama out of his ass the next month. However, under Harsin, we've had that same type of thing play out over, and over, and over again, for the exact same reasons every time.

This is the SEC. When you have a chance to win a game in this league, you have to close. To quote one of American cinema's finest productions, Glengarry Glen Ross, "You can't close the leads you're given? You can't close shit? You are shit! Hit the bricks, pal, and beat it 'cause you are going out!" Auburn failed to close yet again on Saturday night, and it's past time for Bryan Harsin and his potato posse to hit the bricks.

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!