Beware, opponents of Auburn. The Tigers offense has multiple tricks up its sleeve — and at least one that just keeps working. Just ask Alabama. Or Mississippi State.
Under head coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn has put a varied and complete offense on the field. It includes play designs and formation progressions that can make even the stoutest defenses look totally confused.
Most frustrating for defenses are the plays that makes defenders wrong seemingly no matter what they do. The maddening genius of potent offenses is making the incredibly simple look overly complex.
Here’s how Auburn can do that on a play with only two targets.
As Auburn drove to go up by two scores, the Tigers fooled Alabama schematically with this play, a 25-yard completion to Ryan Davis on a wheel route that put the Tigers in business:
While that may look like a one-off trick play, in context, it’s a culmination of coherent offense.
After running plenty of inverted veer looks and other things with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, Auburn’s implementing it this season with Jarrett Stidham.
Right before that big play against Alabama, the Tigers used a Wildcat run play with presnap jet motion from the left to right, a similar look to the pass play:
They then utilized a "sugar huddle," or an abbreviated huddle:
It’s not a hurry-up tactic exactly (notice the play clock is down in the teens anyway); it’s more about getting leverage and alignment advantages. The sequence of plays and play speeds were key to setting up the big gain.
The perimeter players run out and get set, then the OL just turns around quickly, and it’s a really easy way to get a productive run play because the defense isn’t set.
Here’s another mashing after a sugar huddle:
This play shows that even if you honor the deep threat, the Tigers can still burn you.
Auburn’s Wildcat game looks different this year because of Stidham’s ability to throw the ball. He adds a dimension to the already unconventional formation because he can torch teams over the top.
I’d bet my job that the Tide had seen this play. I have, and Nick Saban’s a much more thorough studier of film than I am.
From the Mississippi State game earlier this season:
Yes, that is the same play out of the same formation with the same blocking and the same routes. Yet, a much different result than we saw in the Iron Bowl:
This play has a simple yet deadly design.
The first target for Stidham is the receiver second from the top (Nate Craig-Myers in the Iron Bowl, and Darius Slayton against Mississippi State), who releases free, stutters, and then turns on the jets. With eyes trained in the backfield around all that motion, a WR can get behind a defense pretty easily via sleight of hand.
But you can tell Alabama wasn’t completely fooled by all the motion. Defenders slanted to their left as a unit, which makes sense, but didn’t do so as aggressively as Mississippi State did. Mississippi State’s overaggressiveness on the edge threw off Davis on his wheel track. He couldn’t immediately get upfield and had to widen his route.
As for the vertical route against the Tide, it’s kinda hard to see, but the deep ball was indeed taken away by the Tide (there’s a defender in white there, I promise), so Stidham just hit his wheel option. He had enough time to do so thanks to the offensive line slide protecting:
The wheel is tailor-made to get open in this way on this play.
Alabama’s outside corner takes Craig-Myers on his vertical route. With Stidham in motion into the backfield, Alabama’s inside corner (Minkah Fitzpatrick, red arrow) bails out:
And I don’t blame him for doing so. At the start of the play, there’s nobody over there for him to cover — until Davis shows up. Even if Fitzpatrick is covering the flat, if he comes down hard on Davis, the wheel route is designed to use a defender’s momentum to the receiver’s advantage. It’s hard to stop someone from running past you when you’re running back toward them.
Best-case scenario for the defense is an isolated perimeter defender in a footrace with Davis.
The second-worst scenario:
And the worst:
Against Mississippi State, Stidham had plenty of time, so had the deep ball been covered, he probably would have been able to also check down to Davis.
The key for Stidham is taking what the defense gave him.
Against Mississippi State, it was a 49-yard completion to Darius Slayton. Against the Tide, it was a 25-yard connection with Davis. Auburn scored two plays later and effectively put the game out of reach against a Bama team that was self-destructing anyway.