Auburn football: It's time for Chad Morris' offense to embrace the Tank
Why drive a Cadillac when you can drive a tank?
Comparisons of Tank Bigsby to the Auburn legend, and current running backs coach Carnell Williams aren’t much of a stretch following the electric start to the freshman running back’s career. When all else fails for the Tigers’ offense — which tends to be more often than not through 3 games — the panacea seems to be just find a way to get the ball in the hands of the 6-foot, 200-pound tailback.
A high-end, 4-star recruit out of Georgia, Bigsby was thrown into the deep end a little quicker than anticipated with injuries to starting running back Shaun Shivers and D.J. Williams.
Through 2 weeks, the Auburn ground game was M.I.A. with running backs accounting for just 96 yards on 28 carries, an abysmal 3.4 yards a carry. Quarterback Bo Nix led the team in carries and had the Tigers’ season-long rush of just 13 yards.
But against Arkansas, that narrative quickly changed. Bigsby made his first career start in the wake of Shivers missing a 2nd consecutive game, and his impact was immediate, galloping for 2 carries of 10 or more yards on Auburn’s 2nd series and was the target of 2 Nix passes on the first 2 drives.
With the rain continuing to fall, Arkansas was fed a heavy diet of Bigsby as the freshman pin-balled his way to 106 yards on 11 carries by the half, including this 26-yard run that drew shades of Marshawn Lynch’s Beast Quake run.
Tank Bigsby is a created player in NCAA 14
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 10, 2020
— PFF (@PFF) December 26, 2019
But in the 2nd half, Chad Morris reverted to running the offense primarily through Nix, and is it any coincidence what was once a 17-point lead evaporated into a 28-27 hole?
Bigsby finished the game with 146 yards rushing on 20 carries, the most by an Auburn true freshman running back since Michael Dyer ran for 180 against Ole Miss in 2010. But perhaps even more impressive than his emergence out of a crowded backfield is his ability to influence nearly every facet of the Auburn attack.
Bigsby added 4 catches for 16 yards against the Hogs to run his season total up to 11 catches for 84 yards. Even when the Tigers’ ground game was stifled by a suffocating Bulldogs defense in Week 2, Bigsby surfaced as the team’s leading receiver as a hurried Nix frequently used the tailback as a release valve from an unrelenting pass rush.
For good measure, he added 106 yards on 4 kickoff returns, the latest sign that his role and impact have expanded every week.
In Week 1 against Kentucky, Bigsby touched the ball 7 times for 45 all-purpose yards. Against Georgia, that increased to 171 yards on 19 touches, and against the Razorbacks his 268 all-purpose yards on 28 touches approached the program best of 312 yards held by Tre Mason’s record-setting performance in the 2013 SEC Championship Game.
When the ball is in Bigsby’s hands, good things tend to follow, which is why the decision to continually ride or punt with Nix is made all the more confounding.
Through 3 games, Nix ranks last in the SEC in completion percentage (56.8). His 6.3 passing yards per attempt is only better than Kentucky’s Terry Wilson and Vanderbilt’s Ken Seals, also the only 2 QBs he has more passing yards than.
And it’s not like this is anything new or that there’s reason to believe Nix will take a big leap. As a freshman, he was in the bottom third among qualified SEC passers in completion percentage (57.6), and again only had a higher yards per attempt than 2 players.
Nix continues to make puzzling mistakes (like spiking the ball backward after a botched snap, a play the SEC admitted game officials got wrong) that should be ironed out 16 games into a career. Throws off his back foot with plenty of time and superfluous flushes from the pocket behind an already struggling line should not be happening. With a defense not nearly as good as 2019 to mask some of his flaws, ball control and time of possession will be all the more important as Auburn has a chance to get right Saturday against South Carolina.
Running the ball with Bigsby appears to be the Tigers’ best way forward. And until Nix demonstrates he can outgun a Mac Jones or Matt Corral or Myles Brennan, there’s no reason to shy from what’s working.
This season may not be what Auburn fans had hoped for, but at least the program has what appears to be its next great bell-cow back.