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Film Study: Amid negativity and negative plays, can Malzahn get Auburn’s mojo back?

By Matt Hinton
September 22, 2016

A weekly look inside an SEC playbook.

Gus Malzahn’s reputation as an offensive savant has followed him for so long it seems fixed, as permanent a part of who he is as his Arkansas drawl or his shadow. It’s just a fact: As a high school coach, as a college coordinator, as a head coach in the SEC — at every level his hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy has been vindicated, with the hardware to back it up. (At $4.7 million per year, he’s got the salary to back it up, too.) Malzahn is an innovator, a persona that fits him as snugly as one of his trademark visors.

It’s also a fact, in the wake of last week’s deflating, 29-16 loss to Texas A&M, that genius or not, Malzahn’s welcome is beginning to wear thin at Auburn, and that his renown as a play-caller is rapidly giving way to a much harsher reality.

The 2015 Tigers were the most disappointing team in the nation, plummeting from the Top 10 in preseason polls to last place in the SEC West standings, and the 2016 version is off to an even more impotent start: Not only has Auburn lost two of its first three games, to A&M and Clemson, but it has nearly five times as many punts in those defeats (14) as touchdowns (three).

Because both losses came in Jordan-Hare Stadium, they also extended Auburn’s home losing streak against major conference opponents to seven games and counting dating to October 2014, each generating more angst than the last. Malzahn, feeling the heat, has been apologetic, taking the blame both for his inability to settle on a quarterback against Clemson and his ineffectual play-calling, in general. Meanwhile, the hecklers and boo birds have escalated in frequency and volume and speculation over Malzahn’s massive buyout has begun.

What happened? Already, this weekend’s visit from LSU is being billed as a kind of litmus test for a pair of embattled coaches, with the loser staring down the firing squad for the rest of the season.

The oddsmakers believe that will be LSU (Les Miles’ Tigers are a 3.5-point favorite), meaning Malzahn could be facing a 1-3 start and the beginning of the end less than three years removed from Auburn’s worst-to-first run to the BCS title game in 2013, his first season as head coach. If it is, ironically, his once-vaunted offense will be mostly to blame. How did it come to this, for a coach whose credentials were so recently beyond reproach? And is there any hope at all for the current lineup to salvage his fading rep, before it vanishes completely?

DON’T BE SO NEGATIVE

It’s difficult to isolate a single issue at the root of the Tigers’ malaise when there are so many issues. The quarterbacks are only the most obvious — even ignoring the QB shuffle, the backfield is thin, the receiving corps is an ongoing project, and the offensive line has yet to jell despite a front five made up entirely of juniors and seniors.

There’s some blue-chip talent on hand from the past two recruiting classes, but no proven, go-to playmaker; the candidates for that title, like sophomore tailback Kerryon Johnson, have shown flashes at best. Barring an unforeseen breakthrough, the only offensive starter who projects as a likely draft pick in 2017 or ’18 is left tackle Austin Golson. The entire operation has looked stale and out of sync.

If you’re looking for just one symptom to describe the situation, however, the number that jumps off the stat sheet through the first three games is the frequency of negative plays: Including sacks, the Tigers have lost yardage on 32 of their 245 offensive snaps, most in the nation.

(For more context, consider that 32 tackles for loss is about half as many as Auburn allowed in 2015 over the entire season; its 2016 opponents are on pace to double that number. Meanwhile, no other SEC team this year has allowed more than 21 TFLs.)

Clemson dropped them in the backfield 13 times in 71 plays, or roughly one TFL/sack for every 5.5 snaps; Texas A&M was credited with 14 TFLs, one for every 6.4 snaps. At that rate, it’s almost impossible to piece together a sustained drive without a negative play grinding it to a halt.

Within those numbers there a couple recurring trends. One is Auburn’s repeated — and repeatedly failed — attempts to slow down opposing edge rushers with motion, play-action, and other window dressing designed to keep the rusher on his heels long enough to be blocked by a pulling lineman or H-back. In theory, the initial fakery should put defensive ends in a bind: React too aggressively to the misdirection, and they risk running themselves out of position; hesitate, and they risk becoming sitting ducks for an oncoming blocker. In practice, those same defensive ends keep making a bee line directly to the ball.

Take this play against Clemson, for example, on which Auburn loaded up with three backs (two tailbacks and H-back Chandler Cox) to run a staple of the Malzahn offense, the inverted veer. Jeremy Johnson is the quarterback; before the snap, the Tigers motioned Kerryon Johnson into the backfield with the intention of getting the defense to react horizontally. The play is designed to fake a sweep to Kerryon, thereby drawing the defensive end (in this case, redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell) upfield in pursuit and creating a lane for Jeremy Johnson to run behind Cox and his right guard, Braden Smith:

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At minimum, the fake should have occupied Ferrell’s attention long enough for Smith to engage him on a kick-out block. But Clemson is having none of that: Instead, Ferrell jumps the snap, firing off the ball so decisively that he easily blows past the pulling guard — Smith has no hope of engaging Ferrell here beyond a lunging, glancing shove — and arrives at the QB/RB mesh point so quickly that he’s almost able to take the handoff himself. He doesn’t quite manage that, but he does disrupt the timing enough to send Jeremy Johnson stumbling blindly into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage for no gain.

Later in the game, Auburn attempted a similar blocking scheme backed up at its own five-yard line after botching the second-half kickoff. This time, The Tigers are attempting to manipulate the end (Ferrell again) with a fake end-around action to WR Stanton Truitt, opening up a space for Kerryon Johnson to take the handoff straight up the middle. Again, Braden Smith pulls from right guard with Cox right behind him as a lead blocker, and again he’s left lunging haplessly as Ferrell blows past him, having refused to take the bait.

Cut to the first snap of the Texas A&M game. This time the quarterback is Sean White; the end is the Aggies’ All-American speed rusher, Myles Garrett, whom Auburn will attempt to slow down with a play-action fake to Kamryn Pettway until Smith can pull from the right side into position to take on Garrett himself. If Smith gets to Garrett in time, White should have a nice, clean pocket to step into and deliver a throw. Does he get there in time? He does not, again, because Garrett is crashing too hard to the quarterback to be influenced by a play-action fake.

The Tigers went back to this well later in the first quarter to run what appears to be a zone read — it’s difficult to tell exactly, because (again) the play was blown up before it could develop beyond the initial fake to Pettway. Same story: Garrett is out of the blocks too quickly for Smith to do anything but wave at him on his way to the mesh point. In fact, the would-be handoff on this play is so slow developing that Garrett doesn’t even have to distinguish between quarterback and running back to detonate them both.

Okay, you get the idea. The point isn’t to single out Braden Smith, a solid, veteran blocker who was asked to make blocks on these plays that no interior college lineman should be asked to make against a player like Garrett, or anyone else. It’s to highlight the ways that opposing defenses seem to know what’s coming, or at least to be able to diagnose it immediately, window dressing be damned. Malzahn’s scheme is one based largely on putting defenders on their heels and forcing them to guess wrong, and there are exceedingly few examples in the Clemson or A&M games of either.

The other trend fueling the abundance of negative plays leads to the same conclusion: Auburn’s screen game has been largely dead on arrival, consistently snuffed out by corners and safeties who seem to have a bead on the intended receiver from a mile away.

Watch Clemson’s cornerback on this play, Cordrea Tankersley, at the top of the field — at the snap, he’s the only defender within 5 yards of the target, Auburn’s Marcus Davis, who has two blockers in front of him in a trips formation. Numbers-wise, this looks like advantage Auburn. But Tanksersley attacks the screen immediately, before quarterback John Franklin III has even gathered the snap and turned his head in Davis’ direction, giving Tankersley the edge he needs to beat Chandler Cox’s block and record a TFL that forced Auburn into third-and-long.

Against Texas A&M, the Aggies were so attuned to screens (and so unconcerned with the threat of being beaten downfield; Auburn’s longest completion of the night covered just 18 yards) that on at least one occasion Sean White was forced to rifle an easy, routine throw into the dirt to keep it from being picked off by A&M safety Justin Evans, who jumped the passing lane like he’d been in Auburn’s huddle:

Ditto safety Armani Watts, who easily tracked and plastered Will Hastings on a quick screen without a moment’s hesitation …

… and ditto Donovan Wilson (No. 6 below), who diagnosed and misdirected a 2nd-and-21 screen to Kerryon Johnson until the cavalry arrived to drop Johnson for a 2-yard loss.

Although not a true screen pass, the play that best embodies all of Auburn’s problems through the first three weeks was probably this one, a crucial, third-down pass against Clemson that featured elaborate pre-snap motion, a futile attempt at misdirection, a rusher immediately in the quarterback’s face, and a hopeless throw into the flat that was easily sniffed out and stuffed for a loss.

Keep an eye especially here on Clemson safety Jadar Johnson (No. 18), who has no deep help behind him in this alignment, yet still doesn’t hesitate to let his man run free when he spies Kerryon Johnson releasing into the flat — and he knows right away there’s only one place this ball can go.

Auburn was forced to settle for a field goal, which is on the verge of becoming a trend in its own right: Fewer than half of the Tigers’ red zone trips so far have ended in the end zone, tied for the worst ratio in the SEC.

BACK TO BASICS

The silver lining in the loss to A&M was the continued emergence of the ground game, and particularly of sophomore Kamryn Pettway, who went over 120 yards rushing against the Aggies for the second week in a row after putting up a goose egg in the box score against Clemson. At 6-0, 240 pounds, Pettway is built like a fullback and seems far better equipped to handle an every-down workload against SEC defenses than Kerryon Johnson, who profiles as more of an all-purpose, change-of-pace type in the mold of, say, Onterio McCalebb or Corey Grant.

Between them, Johnson and Pettway gouged A&M for 183 yards on 5.2 per carry, and with an increased role for Franklin in the fourth quarter (nine carries for 47 yards) there were a couple of fleeting glimpses of the offense Tigers fans remember.

The most obvious example of that came early in the fourth, on Franklin’s first series of the game; his first play was a standard-issue zone read on which the unblocked defensive end (Daeson Hall, no. 10 below) crashed hard on Pettway, giving Franklin an easy read to keep the ball himself for an 11-yard gain — not a home run, but good for Auburn’s first rushing first down since the second quarter.

And as it turned out, that was just the setup: The payoff came on the next play, another standard issue zone read that saw Pettway pop free for 33 yards, the Tigers’ longest gain of the night. Keep an eye again on No. 10 for A&M, Hall, who’s suddenly wary of over-pursuing inside, for some reason:

It never hurts, of course, to have an offensive lineman completely flatten the man across from him at the point of attack, as RG Braden Smith does here to A&M’s Daylon Mack. (If we’re going to show Smith struggling in space in the previous section, it’s only fair to give him credit for straight-up domination when he’s able to engage; Mack is considered a rising star.) But what really makes this play go is the prospect of Franklin pulling the ball and turning the corner for another solid gain, a very real threat that freezes Hall and opens up a huge lane for Pettway behind Smith’s pancake.

That’s as good an example as we’ve seen this year of what Auburn’s offense is supposed to look like. If nothing else, it’s an identity.

The problem, at least at this point, is that outside of that narrow, option-oriented identity, Franklin doesn’t offer much else. He’s a one-trick pony: Unlike Nick Marshall, who had more than enough arm to keep defenses from ganging up against the run — or to make them pay dearly when they did — Franklin is a novice passer who clearly has yet to earn his coaches’ trust in that department, or his opponents’ respect.

After Pettway’s run, the Tigers managed one more first down on the drive before bogging down and eventually turning the ball over on downs at the A&M 13-yard line; Franklin didn’t attempt a pass and was stuffed by Hall on back-to-back runs to quash the threat. Until he’s able to handle something approximating a full game plan, most of Franklin’s opportunities are bound to unfold along similarly boom-or-bust lines.

TO SATURDAY AND BEYOND

Using the same logic, Malzahn assured reporters this week that Sean White will remain the starter against LSU because “he gives us the best chance to win.” That’s a fair call, although not quite as obvious as last week’s after White went 17-of-23 for 244 yards and three touchdowns in Auburn’s Week 2 win over Arkansas State; even adjusting for competition, that was far and away the best outing of his young career. (Prior to lighting up ASU, White had just one TD pass in 164 attempts.)

His output against Texas A&M was less inspiring, but hinted at how the rotation is likely to look for the foreseeable future: White starts, Franklin plays in spurts (to supply “a shot in the arm,” in Malzahn’s words), and Jeremy Johnson watches intently from the sideline.

Even if the three-man race has been whittled to two, though, the biggest questions still loom. On the ground, how does a system that historically relies so much on the quarterback as a serious running threat accommodate White’s limited mobility? Is it just a matter of time before Franklin gets the nod? And regardless of the QB, can the line give him enough time to push the ball downfield? White is the most consistent passer, which is why the job is his to lose.

Still, he doesn’t have a huge arm, or a reliable, go-to deep threat. And the failure to challenge A&M deep last week — like, at all — was a direct reflection of their inability to keep White upright in the face of the Aggies’ pass rush.

Of course, not everyone on the schedule boasts a pair of bookend rushers on par with Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. But there are no breaks here: Including LSU, Auburn has four more dates with currently ranked opponents (LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Georgia), plus a trip to Mississippi State, before it even has to think about the all-defining Iron Bowl trip to Tuscaloosa at the end.

Four of those will be road games. Based on what we’ve seen so far, winning more than two of them (thereby securing a winning record) looks like a stretch. If this team has a growth spurt in it, for its and sake and its coach’s, it doesn’t have any more time to lose.