December 12, 2013

Film Study: Intro, 'Bama v. Auburn in Iron Bowl

Over the next few weeks, Film Study will examine where opponents have been both successful and where they've failed against the Auburn Tigers' rushing attack in some of Auburn's biggest games this season.

In the prior "Dream Game" series, in which Florida State's offense and defense was pitted against the opposition in a hypothetical situation, we discussed the Seminoles at length. Rather than doing that directly now, the goal of the next few installments is to build towards the FSU gameplan by learning from other defenses.

First, after a quick background on the Auburn offense, we examine the classic 2013 Iron Bowl and where Alabama's defense succeeded and failed.

Auburn under Malzahn

The Auburn Tigers are the nation's best rushing team, averaging 335.7 yards per game on the ground. Led by coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers feature a spread-option style that is a complete facelift to the traditional wishbone triple-option which we have all become accustomed to watching Paul Johnson run at Georgia Tech.

Malzahn has an impressive resume of success calling plays, but before the season he was unsure who would start for his team at quarterback. Former defensive back Nick Marshall won the job, not because of his ability to pass, but because he is one the best athletes Malzahn has on the roster. Marshall has been clocked in the 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash and has recorded a vertical leap of 38 inches.

At running back, Auburn features Heisman candidate Tre Mason. Mason does not share the same impressive of measurables of his quarterback, but you certainly would not know it by looking at his stats. The junior has rushed for well over 1,000 yards for a second year in a row and has scored 22 touchdowns.

Perhaps Mason's most impressive stat is what he does on first downs. Mason has rushed for 977 of his 1621 yards on first down, making things much easier for his quarterback and offensive coordinator on second and third down.

The combination of Marshall and Mason has been a nightmare for defenses in the SEC to defend.

Profile: Bama defense in the Iron Bowl

True offensive points allowed: 28

Yards rushing allowed: 296

Rush yards/attempt against: 5.7

Third-down conversions/attempts against: 8/15

Opponent Time of Possession: 29:06

When Alabama failed

Alabama held Auburn beneath its season average rushing when these teams squared off in November, and the Tide still lost the game. Granted that might have had more to do with field goal kicking, but the fact remains that the Tigers proved themselves running the football.

How does Auburn continue to run the ball with so much success with opposing teams knowing that it's coming?

It all comes in the packaging and play calling from the head coach. Many teams in college football have switched to some form of spread option with tempo, but few have enjoyed Malzahn's success. At any time, out of the same formation, Auburn can run power, inside zone, counter, read option, speed option or jet sweep. Let's take a look at how the Tigers use their versatility to confuse the defense and create big plays.

Here against Alabama, Auburn uses a form of the triple option to score the first touchdown of the Iron Bowl. Notice the wing back in motion toward the left side of the offense as option number one on a jet sweep.

Marshall reads Alabama defensive end Adrian Hubbard (top circle) and keeps to check option number two, which is handing the ball to Tre Mason. Linebacker C.J. Mosley gets caught up at the line of scrimmage accounting for Mason, and Marshall in-turn keeps the ball, turning upfield for a 45-yard touchdown for option number three.

The scary thing about Auburn's offense is that this is only one wrinkle of many. Many pundits blamed Alabama's meager defensive backfield in the game against Auburn, but the previous play shows that there was a bit more to it than that. If the defensive ends and linebackers cannot show discipline and play to their assignments, Auburn will make them pay dearly as they have all season long.

When Alabama succeeded

The Crimson Tide stalled enough drives to win the game, there's no doubt. Though Kirby Smart wouldn't have been pleased with the numbers above, Alabama did miss four field goals on the way to a stunning loss to its arch-rival. When 'Bama stopped Auburn's attack, it did so in a few key ways.

Taking on, shedding blocks

Perhaps the most grotesque pictures of this year's SEC Championship were those replays of Missouri trying to work around Auburn blockers in order to stop the vaunted ground game. When the Tide made plays, it's because it took on blocks to free up next-level defenders to make the play.

Also, the 'Bama defense had to make some plays in space. When Auburn's offense is running at full efficiency, the scheme will generate moments of isolation, moments of truth for key defenders. No play shows that more than a 4th-and-1 stop where quarterback Nick Marshall decides to keep the ball.

Linebacker Adrian Hubbard, playing the role of edge rusher, takes on a block in this first frame, but keeps his eyes on his assignment (Marshall) the whole way.

Hubbard then wins his battle, shedding the block while also holding the edge to prevent Marshall from a perimeter burst. Hubbard then makes the tackle, a cherry on top play, with support on its way. Alabama takes possession in a down-and-distance situation that heavily favors the Tigers.

Winning first down

Second-and-long or second-and-short. In a pro-style offense, it's not the end of the world to be in the former position as long as the offense can be multiple on third down.

For Auburn, first down success adds the element of tempo to the equation. The Tigers offense, when most daunting, is a snowballing ground attack, pummeling exhausted defenders with body blows of five to seven yards at a time at blistering rates of play. And eventually, after enough of those quick hit plays, the Tigers hit a big one to key a touchdown drive.

Winning first down also tests the patience of Auburn's offense. If committed to the run, things remain challenging. But the Tigers lose their way at times, trusting Marshall's arm over Tre Mason's legs. Any time Marshall puts the ball in the air - no matter the result - that's a win for the defense.

Here is a staggering stat to drive the point home about Marshall throwing the ball: Only twice in 12 Iron Bowl drives did Auburn begin a drive with a pass attempt. The results of both drives were three-and-out.

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