Why Gus Malzahn's early usage of Bo Nix set him up for the Texas A&M matchup
“Now they can play it a little safer … but they’re not going to! Nix is back, throws it downfield! Caught! Touchdown Williams!”
Chris Fowler’s call of Bo Nix’s game-winning touchdown pass to Seth Williams will be remembered by Auburn fans for years to come. That Oregon win was a burst-onto-the-scene moment if there ever was one for the true freshman quarterback.
It was a situation in which Gus Malzahn easily could have run the ball with Nix or one of his tailbacks to try to get a more favorable go-ahead field goal attempt. But as Fowler said, Malzahn didn’t play it conservative. He let Nix drop back and throw the ball.
Throughout the first 3 games of Nix’s career, that’s been a theme of sorts. Nix, a dual-threat quarterback who had 2,112 rushing yards and 34 rushing touchdowns in high school, threw the ball 84 times (an average of 28) and ran it just 16 (an average of 5) in his first 3 games. In 2 of those games, he attempted more than 30 passes.
The first time Nix didn’t hit 30 pass attempts was this past weekend against Kent State, though he did still throw the ball while Auburn held a 38-10 lead late in the 3rd quarter.
I kept wondering about the run-to-pass ratio for Nix early on. As in, why has Malzahn had Nix airing it out so much when we thought Auburn would get back to its run-heavy days of old?
The more I think about it, the more I think Malzahn had the game at Texas A&M this Saturday on his mind.
Let me explain.
Obviously there’s something to be said for allowing a true freshman quarterback to develop a rapport with the receivers. Surely that’s part of the motivation for Nix’s high passing numbers. And yeah, I bet trailing throughout the second half fueled to the pass-heavy plan against Oregon.
But think about it: How do you beat Texas A&M?
Defensive coordinator Mike Elko is one of the best in the business (and is paid thusly). He quickly rose up the ranks because of how well his defenses defend the run. Last year, A&M ranked No. 2 in the country against the run. The Aggies allowed just 95.2 rushing yards per contest, which played a part in the program’s best season of the post-Johnny Manziel era.
You don’t beat A&M by running the ball. Don’t believe me? Ask preseason All-American Travis Etienne. Two weeks ago at Clemson, Etienne was held to 53 rushing yards on 16 carries against Elko’s defense. Why? Elko was intent on making Trevor Lawrence beat the Aggies. As he often does, Elko put an extra guy at the line of scrimmage and made sure it didn’t turn into a ground-and-pound day for the Tigers.
Since Elko arrived in College Station last year, look at how these backs fared against his defense:
- Travis Etienne (Clemson): 8 carries, 44 yards; 16 carries, 53 yards
- Josh Jacobs (Alabama): 6 carries, 10 yards
- Damien Harris (Alabama): 7 carries, 52 yards
- Najee Harris (Alabama): 8 carries, 43 yards
- Benny Snell (Kentucky): 13 carries, 60 yards
- JaTarvious Whitlow (Auburn): 8 carries, 16 yards
- Nick Brossette: 16 carries, 61 yards
That’s 82 carries for 339 yards, which is an average of 4 yards per carry. Against a group of backs like that, that’s outstanding. The old “take what the defense is giving you” strategy comes into play, which explains why none of those backs even registered 20 carries. Elko’s defense isn’t giving the run.
Come Saturday, you can bet that Malzahn wants Nix to be able to recognize and capitalize on what Elko’s defense is giving him. When Nix sees that extra defender at the line of scrimmage and he’s making that call on the RPO, Malzahn wants the true freshman to think with his arm.
It would have been easy for Nix to approach the start of his college career by defaulting to what he’s comfortable doing. I tend to think with any new dual-threat quarterback, running would be the default. But an 84%-16% pass-to-run split is much more lopsided than what you usually see from a young, true dual-threat QB, which Nix is (Lamar Jackson had a career 62%-38% pass-to-run split).
By sticking with the pass, Malzahn allowed Nix to work through some early accuracy issues. Granted, Auburn receivers had a couple key drops most recently against Kent State (Nix took the blame for them). But Malzahn’s pass-heavy approach with Nix hasn’t been because he’s been lighting it up and that’s what’s been working. Auburn has the No. 11 running game in the country. That’s what’s working.
But by giving Nix extra passing reps, it’s allowed for him to work through some things. His footwork still needs to get better, as does chemistry throwing to receivers over the middle. There could still be some growing pains against the Aggies, but perhaps a few less than he would have had if his throwing attempts had been cut in half in his first 3 games.
Does that guarantee that Nix is going to dice up the A&M secondary and lead Auburn to its second Top 25 win away from Jordan-Hare? Of course not. But so far, Malzahn has made all the right calls since taking over play-calling duties following a disappointing 2018 season. His decision to start Nix over 3 older scholarship quarterbacks, while bold, looks smart.
On Saturday, Malzahn’s approach with Nix can pay off again. And if it does, well, perhaps we should be talking about whether this has the makings of another one of those magical years on The Plains.
Cover photo by Adam Gold Broach.