clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Auburn added a Big 12 spread QB to its ground-and-pound offense, and it’s starting to work beautifully

The Tigers don’t have their preferred kind of running threat under center in their Wildcat-heavy offense, but they’re making it work.

Mercer v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

2017 Auburn’s still showcasing its usual mashing brand of offense, but with some tweaks under head coach Gus Malzahn and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, whom Malzahn has said is the team’s playcaller.

Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham can move when needed, but he isn’t the truly mobile QB that Cam Newton and Nick Marshall were, and Auburn no longer has John Franklin III to offer the mobile QB threat. Baylor’s offense was run-heavy, but the Stephenville, Texas native only carried 3.6 times per game there. He’s doubling that rate at Auburn, albeit without a whole lot of yardage.

The Tigers are better through the air with Stidham, though, and that’s to be expected. Auburn’s No. 13 in team passer rating, its best mark since 2014. Stidham’s passer rating ranks ninth nationally, his 71.2 percent completion percentage ranks fifth, and he’s made some nice throws.

Despite a new OC, another QB change, and having to play Clemson early and Alabama late, the Tigers are on course to return to the top 20 in scoring after falling as low as No. 63 in 2015. Auburn has 518 yards per game in SEC play so far, second to Bama.

Auburn has fit its offense around its potent passer.

It still runs a ton. Through six games, the Tigers have rushed 257 times (not counting sacks) and thrown 146 times. Part of that has to do with three straight blowouts, but the 6.26 and 6.39 yard-per-carry averages against Mississippi State and Ole Miss are not to be ignored. They’re improving, but not facing an elite Clemson defense or fumbling the ball four times (like they did against Mercer) certainly helps things look cleaner.

But this is Stidham’s show. So here’s how Auburn’s run game looks after incorporating an air raid arm talent. There’s more to Malzahn’s offense than the Wildcat, but let’s use the Wildcat looks as an example of how Stidham fits in.

This is the unbalanced-line Wildcat in its conventional form.

You’ve heard about this for a decade, ever since Gus Malzahn unleashed it on the SEC with Darren McFadden at Arkansas in 2006. Instead of just using a guard and a tackle on each side of the center, the formation typically brings in an extra beefy blocker on one side.

The formation itself is nothing more than a single wing, which was designed in the early 20th century with a few distinguishing features. First, it had an unbalanced line with both tackles on one side of the center. Second, the ball was snapped directly to a running back. Third, the backfield was full of players that could either block or carry the ball on any given play. The unbalanced line and direct snap to a running back remain in the modern Wilcat, while the misdirection is accomplished with the jet motion through the backfield.

Typically, you’ll see it employed with a running back taking the direct snap (like Kerryon Johnson is in the above screenshot) and the QB split out wide.

Despite having a QB who is not a running threat in the way previous Tigers QB have been, Auburn’s still finding a way to pepper the Wildcat in.

1. Auburn will still run a version of the same play multiple times in a row.

First, they’ll do it conventionally.

Here, the jet sweep motion combines with a power-O blocking scheme. A backside guard pulls to make a meaty convoy of five blockers on the play side, and Auburn gets a first down. Stidham’s lined up as the “running back” here, trying to help draw backside defenders away from the ball.

The next play, Auburn runs with the same personnel and jet-sweep action, but with Stidham at QB now.

That was a short-yardage situation, where the beef makes sense. But they’ll run it anywhere, and in situations that don’t necessarily call for it.

When the Tigers take the Wildcat out of short yardage, you can see some other blocking schemes. This is first-and-10 on the Tigers’ side of the field. Auburn runs a Malzahn-staple buck sweep play with two pulling guards. It ends up being a big-hitter.

You’ll notice Stidham as a WR at the top of the screen, and he runs back across the formation to create some misdirection.

Then, Auburn comes back with the unbalanced line on the very next play. The personnel grouping’s already on the field, so the Tigers just shift skill players around and put Stidham back at QB.

The other thing to note here: They do it the second time at tempo, snapping the ball with 27 seconds on the play clock. This isn’t 2009 Oregon fast, but it still fits Malzahn’s “hurry-up, no-huddle” mantra. It keeps defensive personnel vanilla and unable to substitute. If Auburn catches an opponent at the right time, the Tigers can steamroll tired defenders with plenty of blockers, just as they have for years.

2. Think Stidham is a decoy when split out wide?

That, dear reader, is where you’re wrong.

Here’s Jay Cutler as a QB split wide in a wildcat package.

Stidham proves he’s much more useful.

This gets almost Auburn’s entire offense flowing in one direction before Stidham uncorks a bomb. While he was a decoy against Ole Miss, he runs the same looping action across the formation, and the play is blocked well enough (especially by H-back Chandler Cox) that Stidham has enough time to set and let it rip. It connected for a big completion.

3. Auburn’ll run play action with it, too.

This was a fourth-down play against Clemson, and it screamed run. Auburn knew that and tried to prey on it. The problem is that Clemson knew it too and sacked Stidham, but it should prove more successful against the many teams that aren’t as good up front as Clemson is ...

... because if Stidham could have set and thrown, the deep ball was there.

4. And here’s how they’ll spring it on you out of nowhere.

See how quickly they break the huddle here?

It isn’t a new Auburn tactic. Here’s a clip from the 2013 SEC championship game.

The extra challenge for the defense is having to adjust to both the speed and an unconventional formation. It’s also a formation that is going to come right at you. You’d better be set, and you’d better be ready to hold the point of attack.

Up until this point, Auburn had driven down the field. This play comes out of a pause, thanks to a penalty. Auburn huddles, quickly breaks into the unbalanced look, and runs the play. It gives the defense barely enough time to get set (observe the linebackers who don’t look like they’re quite ready for the play) and Johnson waltzes in basically untouched.

Auburn still runs the ball from conventional sets, but it’s clear that this unbalanced look is here to stay.

Expect Gus Malzahn & Co. to continue to add wrinkles, and it’ll make the Tigers increasingly more difficult to stop, especially given their excellent defense.

Auburn’s offense hadn’t been all that effective in the first three games of the season. In the last three, however, Auburn’s offense has operated in the 80th percentile or better.

Improvement is clear. The Texan QB is getting comfortable with his new scheme, but the run game is still making the whole thing work. That’s just how Malzahn likes it.