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How Auburn shut down Georgia and how the Tigers can keep the upsets coming

The Tigers stomped the No. 1 team’s offense into the dirt. If they can pull off two repeat performances in the next three weeks, they’ll earn a shocking Playoff bid.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn Albert Cesare-USA TODAY Sports

The Georgia offense hasn’t been terribly diverse this season. Going into the Auburn game, RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel had combined for 230 carries, 1,577 yards (6.9 per carry), and 18 rushing TDs. Georgia regularly needed to do little more than hand off to each of them 10 to 15 times apiece and head to a victory.

Freshman QB Jake Fromm had thrown 20 or more passes only three times before the Auburn game, and while he’d looked promising, Florida and South Carolina players had publicly wondered how he’d respond if forced to carry the offense.

Auburn forced UGA to pass 29 times, which yielded Georgia 6.3 yards per throw and 184 yards total along with a single TD pass and four sacks. Chubb and Michel combined for 20 carries that gave the Bulldogs 2.4 yards per carry and a 1-yard TD.

Nothing was really working for Georgia, and that was a testament to an Auburn defense that has been playing top-10 this season.

1. Stopping the run

The Dawgs came at Auburn early and often with the same runs they’d used to ride roughshod over everyone else. The Tigers responded with their same hybrid nickel defense they’d used against most everyone else.

The Dawgs tried an inside zone run from a four-receiver set, using motion to create a run/pass conflict on the middle linebacker. Then, it’s a simple “throw or hand off” read for Fromm, based on how the middle linebacker responds:

This isn’t a great design for the Dawgs, because the only double-team block they get is on the boundary (here, the right side) DE. The weakside linebacker, Tre Williams (who makes the tackle), and the nose tackle end up with a two-on-one against the center.

Later, they came back with their duo play, designed to get double teams on the DL:

The offensive line’s younger right side fails to get movement on nose tackle Derrick Brown, but the LT/LG tandem of Isaiah Wynn and Kendall Baker maul the 3-technique DT. The issue is the block by the TE on strong side end Nick Coe (No. 91), who drives the TE down the line to close the crease. This run is supposed to work like a power concept, sending the ball downhill between a double team and a kick-out block, but the kick-out fails.

In both examples, Auburn covers perimeter options with a nickel or safety, forcing the ball to be run inside, much like Georgia likes to do. Wherever Georgia’s designs relied on single-team blocking, UGA generally struggled to move Auburn’s linemen off the ball, and, in many instances, even allowed single-teamed linemen to make the tackle.

On this split zone run, the Dawgs got double teams on both play-side DL (the linemen the action is going toward), and the ball still had to bounce outside, where a safety ran it down.

There isn’t much to be adjusted here for Georgia. Effective play action or more dropback passing could perhaps elicit more conservative coverages from Auburn, with safeties playing a bit less aggressively in run support, but the bigger issue for Georgia was an inability to win at the point of attack.

2. Dropping back to pass also presented other issues for Georgia.

The biggest was that the tackle tandem of 6’2 LT Wynn and true freshman RT Andrew Thomas wasn’t equipped to handle Auburn’s DEs, particularly “buck” Jeff Holland. Auburn liked to match Holland on Thomas and wreak havoc off the edge:

Fromm is at the top of his drop, and Holland is already there. DT Marlon Davidson (No. 3) is also arriving, after the RG and C tandem struggled to pass off the Tiger DTs on the twist.

That’d be an issue again in this game:

Fromm steps up in the pocket to avoid Holland, but both DTs break through on the twist and quickly bring him down. This is just base, four-man rush, with seven Tigers dropping back in coverage, but that rush is getting home much too quickly to make passing the ball a great option.

Quick throws and checkdowns were also a struggle, and UGA failed to convert third-and-short on multiple occasions, even while using rub routes ...

... or crack screens on swing passes:

Auburn was pouncing on everything from its base defense, occasionally sprinkling in blitzes, and Georgia wasn’t finding much breathing room on anything. The Bulldogs had some success throwing down the field to big Javon Wims, but Auburn’s pressure made it hard to throw deep.

3. Can Auburn’s defense do this one more time? And if so, one more after that?

The Tigers’ roadmap to a fantastic close to this season includes cruising past ULM, defeating Alabama at home, and then beating Georgia in a rematch at the SEC title game. If they can achieve all of that, they’d probably be invited to the Playoff despite two close road losses to Clemson and LSU.

The secret of the 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide is that despite having one of their better OLs in recent seasons, Jalen Hurts is another QB who puts a ceiling on a run-first team’s passing game. His passer rating has improved to No. 21 this year, though that still trails Fromm’s. Like Fromm, Hurts has rarely had to win a close game without run support. In last week’s struggle against Mississippi State, the Tide still averaged 5.32 per carry.

If you can halt the run and force passing downs, they become very stoppable. Bama ranks No. 49 in third down conversions and No. 87 in Passing Downs Success Rate. Auburn’s DL will have its work cut out for it but could cause real problems for the Tide.

In a rematch with Georgia, it’s hard to see many of the dynamics changing up front. In Round 1, Auburn simply outclassed a younger squad of big men.

To generate offense against Auburn requires dropping back and making the linebackers worry about covering routes in the middle or attacking the cornerbacks down the sidelines, when they’re isolated by coverages that involve the safeties in the run game. The Tigers tend to play things pretty basic and rely on strength and athleticism, and while they occasionally present an enticing target for a run, it’s hard to beat their big DL or speedy secondary.

The Tigers play fast in basic schemes and always know what they’re about. You’re either going to outexecute them up front and hope their safeties don’t clean things up, or you outexecute them down the field in the passing game. If the latter never happens, Auburn might not be done shocking the world.