The Tragedy of Offensive Coordinator Scot I

Scene: Auburn Athletic Complex

Act I. Scene I.

Enter SCOT, COORDINATOR MOST OFFENSIVE, solus

SCOT:
Now is the springtime of A-Day content
Made horrendous fall by this son of Loeffler;
And all the glory that did of late shine upon our house
In the deep bosom of horrific losses buried.
Now are our brows bound with tempestuous turmoil;
Our QBs suffering from bruised shoulders and brains;
Our merry shouts of joy changed to stern alarums,
Our delightful celebrations changed to dreadful marches.
Our once grim-visaged team hath lost its form,
And now, instead of racking up touchdowns
To light up scoreboards all across the conference,
We caper nimbly as if in Vandy jerseys
While Bama runs roughshod throughout the land.
But I—that am not tempered for successful coaching,
Nor made to call productive plays–
I—that am rudely stamp’d, and determined to send
Fair McCalebb around the end on nearly every play,
I—that am curtail’d of offensive production,
Cheated of coaching prowess by dissembling nature,
Untalented, incompetent, hired before my time
Into this conference of speed and of giants,
And so predictable in my schemes and sets
That even War Hawks claw at mine eyes–
Why, I, in this testing time of conference play,
Have no possibility of resurrecting our fortunes,
Unless to send Tre Mason off tackle more than once
and thus admit mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a winner
To select and call the most successful plays,
I am determined to prove a villain
and hate the idle pleasures of Saturdays.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
To turn Auburn Family brother ‘gainst brother,
To set player against player, coach ‘gainst coach,
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if Coach Chizik be so full determined
To stick with me; to never draw the line,
As I call plays so false and treacherous,
This season should result in three and nine,
No bowl game, no—nor even conference win,
As champions so recent find they’re not
At top of conference but tumbled to the bottom,
And seat beneath him turning blazing hot.

Alarum; Excursions.  Enter CHIZIK, EARL OF JORDAN-HARE

CHIZIK:  An Offensive Coordinator!  An Offensive Coordinator!
My kingdom for an Offensive Coordinator!
Exeunt.

 

John’s turn to Rant

Before I begin I need to say that I am the most optimistic “glass is half full” Auburn fan you will meet.

Last week Van got to rant about the play calling during the LSU game.  This week it is my turn.  On Friday, October 5, I took a day off from work and drove with my teenage daughter from Richmond, Virginia to Auburn to see the game on Saturday.  I have been attending Auburn games since I was born but since we live so far away this is the only game I will get to in person this season.  And my daughter really wanted a chance to roll Toomer’s Corner one more time before the trees are gone.  This trip is normally an eleven hour drive but due to traffic in Atlanta it took twelve hours on Friday.  So a long day.

Saturday morning, because of the early television start time, we left the house at 6:30 a.m. to get supplies and head to the tailgate spot.  After the long drive of the day before, that was early, but it was game day and we were excited and ready to go.   We enjoyed the 9 a.m. Tiger Walk and cheered the team.  As Coach Chizik had requested, we were in our seats for the pre-game show.  We stayed the entire game and have some nice sunburn to show for it.

And after coming all that way and getting up early, to see this football team be so unprepared to play after a week off was staggering. We will go into detail on Loeffler below but I want to point out some specific things in the game that drove me bananas:

-        Arkansas was a train wreck coming into this game.  They were in the bottom five in the country on defense and the team was quitting when they got behind.  The interim head coach was distracted by his bankruptcy case and the fans only wanted to talk about the coaching search.  And this team came into Auburn and kicked our ass all over the field.  (Important note – that was the fewest fans a visiting SEC team brought that I can remember.  Most people in our section felt that Louisiana-Monroe brought more people to the game when they visited.)

-        Every single player on offense had a poor game. Every player on offense failed to execute on multiple plays.  When you combine that with mystifying play calling, you get the worst offensive performance seen in Auburn in 30 years.  Play calling was poor but execution was the worst—and what made it so painful was knowing that WE HAD AN OFF WEEK TO FIX THAT STUFF.

-        With 9:25 left in the first quarter Auburn calls a pass play and leaves Onterrio McCalebb in to block. Predictably, he is no more than a speed bump for the defensive end that crushes Frazier.  (Why??? Send McCalebb into the pass pattern or have another back in the game.)  Additionally, Greg Robinson was badly beaten by the other defensive end.

-         On the second sack Auburn went to four wide receivers and then sent McCalebb into the right flat. Five pass rushers come and Frazier doesn’t try to dump it off.

-        The use—or non-use—of fullback Jay Prosch is infuriating.  What the heck are we doing with him???? With 40 seconds left in the first quarter we bring him into the game in the I-formation and then hand it to him.  He gains a couple of yards and leaves the game.  Carrying the ball or blocking, either one, Auburn ran the ball out of the I-formation with Prosch at fullback one time on Saturday.   Once.

-        Emory Blake had a decent game.  But his fumble with nine minutes left in the first half was huge.  It directly led to Arkansas kicking a field goal at a time when the Auburn defense was playing well and the Auburn offense was starting to move the ball.  (Van notes: Watching on TV, I was not remotely convinced that Blake actually had possession of the ball before he dropped it here.  Replays showed he was still moving the ball from one hand to the other, and it had never really settled into his grip, when it was knocked loose.  But no attempt was made to review it, or to get it reviewed.)

-        The critical drive of the game was right before the half.  Once Auburn got close to scoring the play sequence went like this:  First down, poor throw to Lutzenkerchen on the sideline.  Second down, McCalebb run up the middle.  Because hey, that always works.  Third down, Frazier has all day to throw and gets sacks for a huge loss.   Completely unacceptable.  (I do not want to hear about how he spent the off week watching tape of Michigan quarterback Chad Henne.  I know that Loeffler clearly loves Chad Henne but that isn’t helping.   Forget Chad Henne’s great footwork.  When was the last time an Auburn quarterback threw the ball away correctly???)  The lack of situational awareness among Auburn players was a huge difference in the game.

-        Mosley started the second half but it was clear early on that changing quarterbacks wasn’t going to make a difference.  The entire offense had come off the rails and at that point it didn’t matter who played quarterback.

-        Quan Bray is more valuable than we knew.  Without him on the field to at least catch the punt Auburn lost at least 50 yards due to Trovon Reed letting the ball hit the ground instead of catching it.  If Reed can’t or won’t catch the ball then please send someone else out there.

We stayed to the end and cheered for our team the whole time. Do I blame the fans who left?  Nope.

And then we drove eleven hours back to Virginia on Sunday.

So when Coach Chizik apologized to the fans after the game I felt like he was apologizing to me.  And I felt like I deserved an apology.  What did they do during the week off? How could this offense get worse against a defense that everyone else in the SEC tears up?  And if it looks like this against Arkansas, what happens when we play UGA or bama?  (Van notes:  I think we all sort of know the answer to that question.)

The last thing I want to say is about the defense.  The 2012 Auburn defense is much better than the 2011 defense and has played well enough to win every week.  In every game until Saturday Auburn was winning in the second half and had the ball.  But at some point when the offense continues to be unable to help the defense by scoring points and winning time of possession and also actively hurts the defense with turnovers and terrible play, the defense is going to give out.  I still have complete faith in VanGorder—I don’t blame him for this—and I think long term the Auburn defense will do very well under him.

/rant.

Van adds:  John makes a good point about how Auburn has pretty much been in every game until well into the second half, all season long—but after the offense has failed so many times each week, the defense finally sort of runs out of gas.  The Arkansas game sums it up very well:  When Auburn scored to pull within three, at 10-7, I had the feeling that we might yet win.  But then Arkansas quickly answered and went up ten again, at 17-7.  And here is the key: When Arkansas went up by ten again at that point in the game, I simply knew we were done.  There was no coming back from ten down again.  It had taken our offense all game long to achieve that one touchdown, and it was obvious to me and probably to everyone else that asking for more than ten additional points, that late in the game, was a pipe dream.  This from a team that scored 65 points on Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks just two years ago.  Think about that.  (Throw out the Louisiana-Monroe game and Auburn has yet to score as many points all season as we did against Arkansas in that one game!)

The Loeffler Question – What the Heck are We Doing?

Here is a simple question: What is Auburn trying to do on offense? We all see what the results are.  But what is Auburn’s offensive identity supposed to be?  You would think after watching every play of every game that we would all know this by now.  We thought Loeffler was hired as a “run-first” guy but we are actually throwing the ball much more than last season.  (The actual breakdown shows more run plays than passes, but when you account for all the scrambles and sacks, the numbers are much more even.) And the constant rotation of players and seemingly random play selection at times doesn’t allow anyone to get a rhythm.

This offense is attempting to do way, way, way too much.  And that is one of the reasons that execution is so bad.  Pick a few things and execute them perfectly.  We don’t care if the playbook is thicker than the last volume of “Harry Potter” if we can’t run most—or any—of them successfully or even competently.  Oklahoma State is leading the nation in offense and they will often run the same play six times in a row on a drive.  But they execute it well.

The word from the Plains this week has been that Chizik is stepping in and sort of mandating that we will move more in this direction.  That’s one of those good news/bad news deals:  The good news is that maybe it will help, and it was definitely needed.  The bad news is that our head coach is having to step in and tell our super-duper wunderkind OC how to do his job.  That almost never ends well.  (Shout out to Tony Franklin!)

Revisiting the Hiring – A Philosophical Decision

When Scot Loeffler was hired, Chizik made it clear that Auburn had conducted a national search and that one of the main criteria for the hire was to find someone who would successfully move us away from the spread of Gus Malzhan and towards more of a pro-style offense.    (The unspoken corollary here was, “Make our offense more like Alabama’s, so we can recruit the same sorts of players, and also so our defense doesn’t have to stay on the field so long.)  Loeffler was also supposed to be a “versatile” offensive coordinator, able to nimbly adjust the game plan and play calling to a particular team’s personnel, as well as a great mentor for talented young quarterbacks.

When coordinator searches come along, our favorite tool is always the numbers—looking at who was actually good at their job (yards per play, scoring offense or defense, etc.).  But there were plenty of coaches out there who ran more successful offenses than Loeffler that Auburn did not hire – and that is purely on Chizik.  Additionally, Loeffler had been an offensive coordinator for one season.   Did that prepare him for being an offensive coordinator in the SEC?

Beyond the skills of the coach himself, a larger question is, Should Chizik have changed the offense in this direction?  Should Auburn have abandoned the Spread concept that it had been using more or less since the bowl game of the 2007 season?

Tommy Tuberville’s hiring of Tony Franklin represented a milestone in Auburn football history.  For the first time, the Tigers were attempting to move away from more of a power run/ball control approach to a hurry-up Spread attack.  Many in the Auburn Family objected on principle—win or lose, those folks were not going to be happy on purely aesthetic grounds, if nothing else.  When Franklin failed, many crowed that the Spread was dead, at least on the Plains.

Then came Chizik.  And Chizik begat Gus, and Gus begat Cam, and Cam begat a Heisman and SEC and national titles.  And for one brief moment the Spread wasn’t so bad.  And we recruited to it.

Then Cam left, and Gus struggled, and it was time to junk the hurry-up and the Spread.  After all, Alabama didn’t run the sissy hurry-up, no-huddle Spread.  They played He-Man football, and they were winning titles, too.  It was as if our very manhood were being questioned by our offensive philosophy.

How is Gus looking to you now?  Now that you have an offense with more talent than Gus had to work with, but with vastly less production?  Now that you have a quarterback who had never run anything but the Spread, trying to read a defense and make multiple decisions on the fly?

We should have stuck with the hurry-up, no-huddle Spread.  There it is.

But, you object, it won’t win titles!

Three of last six national champions ran a form of the Spread.  Only Alabama and LSU won without it—and they both had so much talent on their rosters, they could have run whatever they wanted and been successful.  Numerous teams this season and in recent seasons are running it to great effect—many of them teams that don’t recruit nearly as well as Auburn has of late.  We’re thinking of the offenses at Oregon, West Virginia, Clemson, and even Arkansas State—with new head coach Gus Malzahn (perhaps you’ve heard of him)… heck, Texas A&M and Missouri run it, and we’d argue that’s about the only thing making those teams as competitive as they are.  Put them in a pro-style system and neither likely would have won more than two games thus far.

In sum, Auburn seemed to have found a real identity—and a successful one—at being the no-huddle, hurry-up Spread team in the state.  We were recruiting to it and recruiting very, very well.  We did not need to try to be “Bama Lite,” just because certain other teams in the state were doing something different from us.  We are not “Bama Lite.”  We are Auburn.  We have our own identity and it should not be influenced by what others around us are doing.

What is Going Wrong?

Why isn’t this offense succeeding?  It is easy to say “the quarterbacks on the roster are not good” or the “play calling is bad.”  (See – McCalebb running into the center of the defense for no gain, or getting chased down yet again on the corner).

Teams practice so that they can execute during the game.  And this Auburn offense cannot execute during the game.

Halftime adjustments by the offense have been non-existent or are not helping.  In every game Auburn’s offense has gotten noticeably worse in the second half.  Auburn’s offense in the second half has completed 52% of its passes with one touchdown and six interceptions.

We don’t believe that this is a lack of talent.  Auburn has players that would play for most other SEC offenses.   But are they being used correctly?

Auburn has been like a Swiss army knife with too many attachments to this point in the season and it is as if the coaches can’t figure out which attachment to use.  They need to pick one or two things that will work and just do them over and over and over and over.  Run out of the I-formation with Prosch and Mason and then play action off of that.    That is it.  Throw the rest of the playbook out.  So—less “forty-tool Swiss army knife” and more “hammer” this week on offense.

Numbers don’t lie – how bad is it?

Auburn is allowing 9.4 tackles for loss per game.  Out of an average of sixty offensive plays per game, that means that 15% of the plays never get past the line of scrimmage.

On third down Auburn is completing 45% of its passes with one touchdown and four interceptions.  In conference play Auburn has converted 22% of third downs.

Auburn is 115th in the nation in total offense and 119th in scoring offense. Auburn is last in the SEC in almost every offensive category.

Auburn is 124th (last in the nation) in turnover margin. Auburn gives the ball away an average of 2.2 times per game more than we take it away from the other team.

Auburn is averaging 15 points per game and 9.0 points per game against conference teams.  Auburn clearly needs to build a large statue of Gus Malzhan because he averaged 25 points per game with this group.

Transition and Fit of Current Players

What we keep hearing is that this is a long transition period and that we should expect the offense to struggle when making such a dramatic change.  However, Auburn isn’t the only team in the SEC which changed offensive coordinators this offseason.  Texas A&M (44 points per game) implemented a new offense and starts a first year quarterback.  Mississippi (31 points per game) implemented a new offense and starts a JUCO quarterback.   Florida (27 points per game) implemented a new offense and starts a quarterback as experienced as Frazier.  How is it that the transition is impacting Auburn and not those teams?  (And yes, Alabama and Arkansas changed offensive coordinators also—but in those cases the system did not seem to change very much.)

Is the problem that the current Auburn players are all “Spread” players and not good “fits” for Loeffler’s offense?  If that’s the case, should Chizik have moved in this direction, given that Auburn didn’t have the pieces to make the offense work?  And—will anyone (and we mean anyone) be willing to stick with this coach and this system for another two or three years to give it a chance to work?  We seriously doubt that.

Bottom Line on Loeffler

Unless Auburn improves dramatically on offense and wins games, Scot Loeffler needs to go after the season.  And to be clear – we are not talking about being competent on offense, we are talking about being a very good offense.

Gene Chizik gets a pass for this season in exchange for winning the national championship.  But he hired Loeffler and he will get a chance to replace him.  And that will determine Chizik’s fate and where Auburn’s football program heads in the next few years.

Oh Yeah—There’s a Game This Weekend…!

In case you haven’t watched any Ole Miss football this year—and, honestly, why would you do that to yourself if you didn’t have to—blACKBeAR Rebel Alliance is pretty good on offense.  They run a wide open attack that Hugh Freeze brought from Arkansas State and it is evenly balanced between pass and run.  They are first in the SEC in offensive plays longer than 10 yards.  (Hear that, blACKBeARs?  You’re number one at something good!)

Good news for Auburn – Ole Miss has been very hospitable to guests this season.  They are allowing 6.7 yards per play to visiting teams.  But can this Auburn team improve on the road?  After the way the offense performed at Starkville, can it go into Oxford and play well?  If Ole Miss scores more than, say, twenty points, would anyone give this Auburn offense a chance to match or exceed that number?  Hmm.

Wishbone Power Poll

The Elite:
Alabama.  (Please make it stop.  Soon.)

The Very Good:
South Carolina
Florida
MSU
UGA  (Didn’t Van predict that they would not win the East several months ago?  Yes, he did.)

The Good:
LSU (Lacks the big time wide receivers of recent years and injuries are taking a toll.)
Texas A&M
Tennessee (Is it just us, or do segments of the SEC suddenly look more like the PAC 12, with all this offense and passing and not so much defense?)

The Not Good:
Vanderbilt
Ole Miss  (The “Not Good but Probably Good Enough THIS Week.”)
Missouri  (Hosting Alabama this week without starting quarterback James Franklin.   Hey, you wanted to be in the SEC, Mizzou fans.)

The Wretched:
Arkansas  (“We can build from this!  Woo Pig! Yeah!  We can… Um… Okay, no, we really can’t.”)
Auburn
Kentucky (Wildcat fans might argue they should be listed higher than Auburn.  But hey—you lost to Western Kentucky, while Auburn beat the mighty Louisiana-Monroe WartHogs.  So you get the bottom slot—for now.)

Related: The Top 5 Auburn Bye Weeks of All Time.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

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