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Lessons

For the third week in a row, a lower-tier SEC team has staged a coming-out party against Auburn.

Whenever we get beat like we did last Saturday, I always hope that next week, whoever got the better of us comes out swinging against their next opponent.  Makes the Tigers look better overall, and it makes the loss easier to stomach – there’s no shame in losing to a genuinely better team, or at least a team that has the potential to be so.  So far, we’ve been obliged.  Tennessee’s Jonathan Crompton didn’t kick off the festivities soon enough in our game, but he sure kept the party going versus Georgia.  Arkansas regressed to their very impressive mean, stoning the Tigers and keeping enough momentum to give the Gators all they could handle.  And yeah, I hope the best for that young Kentucky quarterback.

I just wish the Auburn Tigers weren’t so… instructive.  When two defensive coordinators are kept awake at night trying desperately to figure out our offense… and they do… well, that’s extremely frustrating.  We should be better than that.  And we are.  What I really want to know is when we started being breakable.  Below is a graph of the West Virginia, Arkansas, and Kentucky games:

WVU-AK-UK-09

Look at WVU versus Kentucky.  For the most part, we were playing better last Saturday than versus the Mountaineers.  And yet, late in the game, we committed two awful false starts, killed our drive, and Kentucky ripped the momentum away.  Same thing versus Arkansas.  We hadn’t played as well versus the Razorbacks, but we were in a comparable position as we were in the fourth quarter versus WVU.  And then, we gave up that huge, jaw-breaking kick return.  Arkansas scored from the short field and we gave the ball up on consecutive possessions, one of which was a sure first down.  Earlier in the season, Auburn displayed real chops, that never-say-die fourth-quarter resilience versus West Virginia.  And in almost all the graphs of adjusted yards to-date, there has been an inflection point somewhere in the game where Auburn dug in, stopped a long slide, and roared away with all the momentum.  Lately, we get back in that groove in the fourth quarter only to get knocked out of it twice as hard.

I don’t buy the idea that we’re “just not that good.”

We are.

We beat the Mountaineers.  We took it to the Vols.  We just haven’t been playing the fourth quarter with our heads on frontwards.  And as such, the worse teams are looking better and the better team is looking worse.  Impostors.  There needs to be a little more application of the will on our own side of the ball, and subsequently fewer fumbled snaps and back-to-back false starts.  And for that to happen, we need to show some resolve.

Until that happens, our Auburn Tigers will continue to meet adversity in the fourth quarter, and continue to get beaten by it.

Defense
once again, the strength of the team

Yes, it must be said that a day in which the opposing offense produces two hundred-yard rushers and three scores on the ground is not a good day.  Yes, given that our defense’s strength is in the backfield and Kentucky started a true freshman and switched to a career backup, it would have been nice to sell out on the runs that we had to know were coming.  Yes, Kentucky was able to play more consistent football overall than they have been playing all year.  Yes, a reputedly two-dimensional defense did very little to stop a one-dimensional offense.  Yes, yes, yes.

But still: Kentucky scored 20 on Bama, 26 on South Carolina, 7 on Florida and 27 on Louisville.  The Wildcats drove 204 yards for their 20 points in the Bama game.  Kentucky drove 263 yards for 26 points on their scoring drives versus South Carolina.   And against Auburn (assuming they made that field goal) they drove 241 for 24.

I’m not trying to say that we faced down the same offense that the ‘Cocks and the Tide played.  The attack faced by South Carolina was at least similar, but no question we faced a different offense than did the Tide.  I’m not even trying to say that the defense was necessarily that good.  A one-dimensional, two-headed offense of Kentucky’s ilk walking onto the Plains in a night game would, in any other year, leave the field a bruised, bewildered, inside-out mess.  The final whistle showed us some Wildcats that, frankly, were none of that.

What I’m trying to say is that the defense did their job.  They did enough.  And we can’t ask any more of those twenty-six young men.

Personally, I think the secret is in better fundamentals, specifically tackling.  Yes – again, yes – there were big gains that could have been stopped more short.  But on the whole, the Tigers were hitting more squarely and tackling more surely than they have all year long.  And it was enough.

Offense
ubi sunt, Todd and Malzahn?

Yeow.  Chris Todd is in a real slide by the numbers.  Check out his line (green):

AU players halfway through

First chart is of adjusted yards for Auburn’s main four cogs and Pythagorean win incidence.  Second chart is a scatter plot of those players’ performance versus Pythagoras, with linear regressions.  Todd’s line, unsurprisingly, has the strongest correlation, the most positive slope, and is the only line with a negative y-intercept – meaning his performance is the strongest predictor of Auburn’s success as a team among key offensive players and when he’s off, everybody’s off.  These are merely approximations of what is surely a complex problem.  How complex, pray tell?  Par example, Ben Tate’s line in the second graph has a negative slope, meaning that the nights on which Ben Tate has run the best are, loosely speaking, the nights in which Auburn has played the worst as a team.  The R2 for Tate’s line – roughly indicating the strength of prediction – is twice that of Burns’, and roughly four times that of McCalebb’s.  This quite frankly is eat-my-own-shoe bizarre, and I’ll take your best guess as to why just as easily as I take mine.  Thankfully, the very low correlation strength of this line means we don’t have to think too hard about that conclusion, and thankfully, that line is basically flat (the most likely conclusion is that Ben Tate is just going to get his yards, your defense or our offense be damned.)  That ought to be pretty clear from our season, just as it’s pretty clear from the numbers that our starting QB is extremely important.  In Malzahn’s system, as the quarterback goes, so goes the offense.

But while that is true, I still worry that this offensive system is showing some weaknesses.  The misdirection is not misdirecting anyone.  The passing game isn’t creating any space.  And when all of that breaks down, we’ve been totally unable to improvise.  To me, that speaks to our coaching more than anything.

Against a running offense predicated heavily on misdirection, the best defense is to put your players in the right position and make them simply stay home as the play develops.  Malzahn’s counter to staying home is leverage – subtle changes in formation that attack the defense with different timing or different angles.  That way, staying home is as risky a proposition as chasing the play – the Auburn Tigers are either gonna take you out of your cleats with the fake, or they’ll mow you down with precision blocking.  Leverage is not so threatening in the passing game.  This is because in the passing game, you’re trying to throw to a specific spot on the field.  Zone coverage defends spots, not necessarily players, so it doesn’t much matter what the initial formation is.  What matters is the diversity of spots we throw to, IE, the diversity of plays.  Diversity of plays is usually what butters the spread offense’s bread… but this isn’t a spread offense.  This is a misdirection leverage multi-set offense.  That’s why our it begins and ends with the running game and the play-action – leverage is very effective in the running game.  When we run, our blockers should be in much better position to attack the defense.  The only way our opponent should be able to defend that is by flying to the ball, which either results in them outnumbering us at the point of attack, or overrunning our blockers and creating bad angles for us.  Basic run fitting.  The final counter is when the defense comes down to defend the run, hit ’em with the deep ball or the screen.

As with many things, this approach seems to come down to a pick-two-of-three decision*.  Formation diversity, misdirection, play diversity: you can successfully coach two of those three to a bunch of preposterone’d** college-age dudes.  So as a design feature, Malzahn’s offense doesn’t have an overwhelming diversity of plays.  This is certainly a different approach to coaching football.  And it is undeniably a viable one – just look at what Mad Dr. Gus has accomplished in his rather limited career.

So how does one stop that system?

Granted, I am given no enormous fee to defend offenses or attack defenses.  But, I’d zone-blitz according to the offense’s running tendencies, mostly between or around the tackles.  It decreases the amount of sheer thinking that your run defenders have to do – all they have to do is blitz, so they can mostly ignore the misdirection.  Zone coverage also puts eleven sets of eyes in the backfield, allowing the entire defense react to running plays once they evolve.  In terms of defending the pass, you wouldn’t need a diversity of zone coverages to defend a discrete set of passing plays.  The zone blitz also puts the secondary in three-over coverage to defend the deep ball from the second that the ball is snapped.  This is good because the main danger of our two outside receivers is them getting behind you.  And last, I’d put my cornerbacks right up at the line of scrimmage to not just bump their man, but downright come after those wide receivers.  That does a few critical things: disrupt the timing of passing plays, make outside runs that much tougher, and attack the screens before they’re even thrown.  Then I’d tell everyone to keep an eye on the backfield and let the play develop.  Play-action doesn’t necessarily hurt a defense if there’s no deep ball to worry about and the play develops slowly enough that the defense can react to receivers whose timing is off and who are forced to improvise.

I’m sure that this is not the only possible strategy versus the Malzahn offense (just as I am sure Gus has studied the zone blitz.)  But that inside-to-outside run defense under a stay-at-home zone backfield seems like a good fit versus Auburn’s system.  Thus, the game comes down to two critical areas:  play calling tendencies, and the ability of our players to improvise.  I’m starting to think that opposing teams have caught on to some of our tendencies.  Again, the misdirection isn’t misdirecting anyone – many times we’d try to run inside, having faked the sweep, and there would be no running room at all between the tackles.  Or the defense would flow to the ball immediately on the outside runs.  And the cutbacks -the total field-reversals, even – just aren’t there anymore.  Passing downs were horrible.  Either Todd would not find the receivers, or they’d be shoulder-to-shoulder with a white jersey.  And I wonder if our (relatively-speaking) limited playbook has something to do with that.

This doesn’t mean that Malzahn is in over his head or out of his league.  You do not enjoy the kind of success he’s enjoyed without being the genuine article. Moreover, bad decisions were made on-field by a number of different players, for which Malzahn at the most can share in the responsibility.  It just means that he faces a challenge that must be overcome.  From day one, this coaching staff has prided themselves on finding problems and taking care of them, on innovative approaches to our very difficult situation.  I have faith that they will find a way.

Seems like the perfect time to visit Death Valley.

As for the wild maelstrom of rumor surrounding Todd’s arm:  buh?   Tell me how that is supposed to work:

Noodle-armed quarterback has surgery in offseason

He is subsequently good enough to win starting job based on two-a-days alone

He performs brilliantly for five or six games

Abruptly he becomes noodle-armed again despite not sustaining any significant injury

Somehow his lack of passing ability allows opposing defenses to accurately predict the direction of our running plays

‘ll believe it when I hear it tumble out of the Chiznik’s grill. Even if one was to contend that a defense unconcerned about Todd’s deep arm strength would be able to stack the line, that doesn’t explain why the misdirection didn’t work anymore and our receivers had white-jerseyed shadows.  And regardless of any speculation, the guy still hurled the ball a good thirty yards, a feat impossible in 2008.  In my honest opinion, the Auburn offense’s schematic woes are the far more likely explanation of the Auburn offense’s woes.

Special Teams

I feel like special teams were basically a non-factor.  35.7 yards a punt bad (when the opposing punter has almost as many yards on one less kick, bad,) punt return yardage by Cobb 7 yards good.  But still – that’s just seven yards below Durst’s average from 2008, and five below his prior 2009 average.  Were those five to seven lost yards really that important with our defense playing as it did?  Kickoffs were still ugly in both directions.  And that blocked field goal was a ten-point swing, which in any other game would have been very significant.  But with our offense playing so badly, it just didn’t matter.

Is anyone here willing to claim that 21-14 loss to Kentucky is qualitatively different from the 7-24 loss it easily could have been?  Not me.

* For business: fast, cheap, high-quality: pick two.  For government: fast, quality, expensive: pick two, but one must be “expensive.”

** Picnicface = NSFW.

About John

John Magruder has been going to Auburn games since before he was born, and when Bo went over the top, he was at Legion Field. Some mothers play Mozart to their developing progeny. John was raised on the roars of the Tiger faithful.

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