Ferg’s Film Room: Auburn’s offense learned lessons from losses, and proved it in Iron Bowl

AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome back to Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deeper breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.

Outside of six quarters, Auburn’s offense has been prolific in Gus Malzahn’s first season together with both offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham. But those six quarters put Malzahn’s job in jeopardy, as Auburn looked hopeless on offense against Clemson and in the second half against LSU.

After some adjustments in mentality and strategy, though, those six quarters haven’t hurt Auburn. They’ve been the catalysts for a run to the SEC Championship Game and College Football Playoff contention — and that message came through loud and clear Saturday in Auburn’s 26-14 upset of Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

MORE:  Ryan Davis becomes Auburn record holder, Iron Bowl hero in same night

Offensively, Auburn simply outcoached and outexecuted the best defense in college football. Lindsey had his best game as an Auburn play caller, and Stidham delivered one of the top performances against any Alabama defense in the Saban era. With some wrinkles and tough performances from both Kerryon Johnson and Ryan Davis, that was more than enough for Auburn’s biggest Iron Bowl win since 1969.

In this edition of the Film Room, let’s highlight four offensive lessons Auburn learned from its losses to Clemson and LSU, and how it utilized that knowledge to win the SEC West over its biggest rival.

  • This week, I want to give a special shoutout to Zac Blackerby, who hosts SEC Country’s daily Auburn podcast. Throughout the season, Zac has had Sunday GIF threads of certain Auburn players. This week, I’m going to use his tweeted GIFs from the Iron Bowl throughout the story.   It should make things easier to load on the page (just click the play buttons), and it should make you want to follow Zac at @Zblackerby on Twitter.
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Auburn wide receiver Ryan Davis set a team record for receptions in the Iron Bowl with 11 on Saturday. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Run shorter routes

In the second half against LSU, when Auburn’s offense wasn’t ramming the ball head-first into Dave Aranda’s loaded boxes, it was running way too many deep pass patterns. From that LSU edition of the Film Room:

Auburn never used a screen, a slant or any other quick-hitting pass to take advantage of the 1-on-1 matchups to the outside. The passing game kept going deep, which was reminiscent of Auburn’s earlier second-half shutout this season at Clemson.

CBS color commentator Gary Danielson remarked on how Auburn didn’t have any “quick passing options” and was going deep too much.

This played right into LSU’s adjustment. Aranda could put more players in the box and trust his cornerbacks, who  haven’t given up many explosive plays this season, to stay with Auburn’s receivers on those long routes. They did just that.

Alabama employed a similar defensive strategy Saturday. Jeremy Pruitt’s swarming 3-4 defense is one of the best nationally, as always, at stopping the run. With just three defensive linemen up front and an edge rusher or two on most plays, Auburn faced a good amount of 1-on-1 coverage against Alabama.

So instead of going for broke with deep balls, Auburn stuck to the shorter stuff — and it worked to near-perfection.

Stidham had 28 pass attempts against Alabama on Saturday, completing an impressive 21 of them. Here’s how they broke down by distance.

  • Screen: 9
  • Short (Less than 10 yards): 8
  • Intermediate (10-20 yards): 6
  • Deep (20-plus yards): 2
  • Thrown away: 3

These shorter passes served Auburn well throughout the game, especially when it came to the all-important third downs. While Alabama wasn’t able to convert a third down until the fourth quarter, Auburn moved the chains on 7 of its 10 pass attempts on third down.

Auburn stayed out of third-and-long, too, with these quicker passes and screens on earlier downs — only 3 of the 18 third downs it faced had 9 or more yards to go. That’s staying on schedule.

One of the biggest advantages that came from all these shorter pass calls was the usage rate of Ryan Davis. It’s no surprise that in the LSU game, Davis only had 2 receptions. Remember, Auburn called too many deep passes in that game, and the 5-foot-9 Davis was effectively left out of the game plan.

Davis’ agility and playmaking ability after the catch were huge in this game. Alabama’s defensive backs had a hard time staying with him in 1-on-1 coverage, and he took full advantage with 11 receptions on 11 targets for 139 yards.

For weeks, Auburn fans pleaded for more slants and crossing routes from the passing attack. Auburn almost exclusively used them against Alabama. They were well-run, too, as this video from CBS Sports’ Aaron Taylor shows:

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Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham threw a bunch under pressure Saturday. (Benjamin Wolk/SEC Country)

Settle down in the pocket

Auburn’s quick passing game was particularly effective Saturday against Alabama because of the nature of the Tide’s defense. Pruitt called a ton of blitzes, as Auburn expected — Malzahn mentioned it several times during game week. Without a go-to pass-rusher, Pruitt has had to rely on more aggressive calls to generate pressure on quarterbacks.

Against Clemson, Stidham struggled in the pocket and was sacked 11 times. He got “happy feet” too much, and that trend continued in the second half against LSU. But, when faced with a truly elite defense again, Stidham was able to show just how much he’s improved behind a better offensive line.

On the second drive of the game, Stidham showed his trust in both his offensive line and his receivers. Nate Craig-Myers dropped a catchable pass on second down. On the next play, Alabama dialed up a blitz.

Instead of panicking in the pocket, Stidham stands in and throws a bullet, knowing he’s going to get hit. And instead of avoiding Craig-Myers, he goes right back to him with a perfectly layered pass between the cornerback and the safety.

Stidham scrambled a few times and had to bail out with throwaways throughout the game. However, more often than not, the Texan stood in the pocket and delivered precise passes with pressure in his face.

On the second play of the game, Stidham’s hesitation on pressure from Alabama cornerback Hootie Jones gave him enough time to find a screen to Davis. Instead of panicking and tucking the ball in that situation — which he did quite a bit earlier in the season — Stidham stayed firm and fired it to his target.

Pruitt didn’t shy away from cranking up the pressure with blitzes on Stidham, especially on third downs. In the second half, Stidham was forced to wait a little longer than expected on a crossing route from Will Hastings, who was getting roughed up near the line of scrimmage. But Stidham waited until Hastings could squirt free, and he converted on a crucial third down on a drive that would turn into three points.

Let’s go back to that crossing route Taylor highlighted in the above video with the high-five from Hastings. On this play, Pruitt brought both inside linebackers on an all-out blitz.

In the face of this pressure, Stidham waited until Davis got open and converted the third down. That put Auburn in field goal range, which allowed the Tigers to break the tie right before halftime.

Two months ago, Stidham could’ve easily gotten “happy feet” on these pass plays. Instead, he trusted his protection and his receivers, which made him a deadly efficient pocket passer against the nation’s top defense.

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Auburn receiver Nate Craig-Myers was on the receiving end of a well-designed trick play against Alabama. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Don’t be predictable

Against Clemson and LSU, Auburn ran the ball on early downs and chunked it deep on third downs. Remember this nugget in the second half of the LSU game?

Auburn didn’t have a streak like that against Alabama. On 8 of its first 11 first-down plays against Alabama, the Tigers opted for passes, much of them screens.

By the end of the opening quarter, Stidham had already been more effective through the air than any Auburn quarterback in six of the last nine Iron Bowls — for the entire game, that is.

But the biggest pass of the first quarter — and the only touchdown pass of the game from Auburn — came from the arm of Kerryon Johnson.

All season long, whenever the Tigers have gone with Johnson in the wildcat, the plays have almost exclusively been a keeper up the middle. It’s effective, sure, but it’s predictable. That can be a recipe for disaster against an Alabama defense that was stifling against the run and one of the nation’s best in the red zone.

So, in a grind-it-out kind of day for Johnson, he got the opportunity to showcase his passing skills. The Tigers waited for the right time to call a jump pass, and it worked to perfection.

Alabama sold out for the run up the middle. Johnson had an easy toss over the line to Craig-Myers — although Alabama was so focused on the run that he could’ve dumped it to Kam Martin on the jet motion, too.

(YouTube)

Auburn didn’t run many trick plays against Alabama, but it showed off several wrinkles and a couple of new-look formations.

One of them came in the first quarter, where the Tigers showed a five-wide set. On this play, Austin Golson was split out wide, leaving an eligible receiver at the normal “tackle” spot — similar to the “Fight Song” play from the Malzahn playbook. Auburn went with a simple screen, but it will give future opponents something to think about whenever the Tigers roll it out again.

Later in the fourth quarter, when Auburn was driving to go up by 2 touchdowns, the Tigers went with a different option on a play they put on film several times earlier in the season.

In this wildcat set, Johnson handed it off to Davis, who flipped it back to Stidham from a wide receiver position. Auburn has hit the deep ball on two different occasions from this look — once with Davis throwing it himself to Darius Slayton, and another time with Stidham delivering it.

This time, though, Alabama was ready for the deep ball. And by making sure Stidham didn’t burn them over the top, the Tide left Davis — the original ball-carrier — wide open on a wheel route. That simple pseudo-checkdown was one of the easiest throws Stidham made all day.

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Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham directed traffic on his huge touchdown run in the fourth quarter. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Let Stidham run it

Here’s one final look back at that LSU edition of the Film Room:

The RPO never was a true RPO in the second half. Auburn’s 13 pass attempts in the second half all appeared to be dropbacks or traditional play-actions. Stidham never made the read and threw it to a receiver, because, again, almost all of their routes were deeper than the normal quick-hitting RPO slants, hitches and screens.

That took away one of Auburn’s three options off the RPO. The second one, Stidham keeping the ball for a run, never happened. LSU knew Stidham wasn’t going to run, so it stopped accounting for him after a while in the second half.

Auburn definitely kept the pass in “run-pass option” available against Alabama, with Stidham firing so many screen passes and quick shots off of those looks.

The running threat made a huge difference as well.

Stidham kept the ball on a pair of early RPOs. The two plays only went for a combined 3 yards, and CBS color commentator Gary Danielson made a point to highlight all the hits on Stidham that he thought were unnecessary.

But Auburn needed him to run some against Alabama. On the go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter, Stidham tucked it on third down and scrambled for the first down. Two plays later, Lindsey called something he hadn’t all season — a draw play that looked like it would’ve been designed for Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. In the words of Malzahn, Alabama “parted like the Red Sea” here.

With Alabama so focused on Stidham getting the ball to Johnson and his receivers, he had room to operate on the ground.

Then, with a touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, Stidham saved his best run for last. On this RPO, he pointed upfield like he was going to throw the ball over the top of the cornerback — something like Auburn’s last offensive touchdown the last time it beat Alabama.

After tucking it and getting past the first linebacker, Stidham was always going to score. Auburn’s receivers, which have become top-notch at turning these RPO routes into downfield blocks throughout the season, gave him enough to find the end zone.

For the longest time, a lot of talk about Auburn said Gus Malzahn needed a great running quarterback to succeed — at least if it wanted to beat Alabama.

Stidham proved that with the right play calling and the right timing, Malzahn just needs a great quarterback. And if he can tuck it and score every now and then, that’s a division title-clinching bonus.

The post Ferg’s Film Room: Auburn’s offense learned lessons from losses, and proved it in Iron Bowl appeared first on SEC Country.

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