Gene Chizik wasn't exactly a popular choice when Auburn tapped him to replace Tommy Tuberville. But if nothing else, he's done one thing right -- hiring Gus Malzahn to run his offense. From the ashes of the Tony Franklin "error" (see what I did there?), the Auburn offense nearly doubled its points per game output last year, and the improvement's only continued this year. The Tigers average 40 points per game and 280 rush yards per game.
As we all know, the offense has really taken off with the unique talents of Cameron Newton. Malzahn's story is pretty well known at this point, but what makes his offense so unique? We'll explore that here.
Dr. B of Shakin' the Southland provided an excellent breakdown (including video and graphics) of the attack a few months back.
The first word, of course, is tempo. It's the first thing you have to prepare for when defending this offense and it's ultimately the biggest obstacle. There are no-huddle offenses, and then there's the pace Gus Malzahn likes to set with his attack. The goal is for the ball to be snapped within five seconds of it being spotted. The goals, as Dr. B paraphrased from Malzahn's book "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy" are:
- Speed up the game - Accomplished by snapping the ball within 5 seconds of spotting it. This makes the offense the aggressor and takes the defense out of their routine of reading and adjusting to the formation.
- Lengthening the game - Making the game take longer to finish, and subsequently testing the conditioning of the defense. In his words, a 48-minute high school game involves only 7-8 minutes of actual playing time (a few seconds for each play). If you can lengthen this by 2-3 minutes, you are effectively making it a 5-quarter game. You go for it on 4th down, try onside kicks, and do anything you can to get the ball to your offense's hands.
- Mentally and physically wear down the opponent - a 5th quarter of game play plus the pressure of having to line up correctly within a few seconds will wear your opponent down both ways. The defense must maintain concentration for that extra quarter.
- You set the tempo of the game.
- Coaches can reset the play after noting the defensive alignment - meaning they'll line up and make you show what youre running, and change the play.
- Defenses cannot simulate it in practice - Your scout team is not going to be able to run at this pace and prepare your defense. Thus, your defense will need to spend extra time to prepare for it.
- More snaps for the offense means more possibilities for scoring, finding weaknesses, etc.
Last year, Auburn struggled to adjust to the new style. Conditioning was a factor, and the offense rarely got to jump into hyperspace the way Malzahn wants (some also argue that the tempo has a negative effect on Auburn's own defense, but that's a study for another time). That seems to be changing this year. Newton gives them the added freedom of having the zone read/midline veer play as a constraint play, something that they can always hurry to the line and run at the first opening.
As far as the play-calling itself, the Malzahn attack does two things that most modern offenses do - put a new spin on classic football, and break down the complex into simple concepts.
When running the ball, Auburn runs a lot of classic run plays like the isolation, the trap, the power-O, the sweep and the counter-trey and applies them to spread formations. Those terms usually get associated with names like Joe Gibbs, Marty Schottenheimer, John Riggins and Christian Okoye, but even if you move a few of the chess pieces around, the principles remain the same. Offensive linemen pull, trap and down-block, and opposing linebackers spend the game shedding 300-pounders instead of 240-pound fullbacks and tight ends.
An I-formation "power" run, versus the standard 4-3 "stack" front.
The same play versus the 4-3 from a shotgun formation.
And now the counter-trey.
Plus, having a mobile quarterback in the shotgun for these plays gives the added advantage of the exchange read - or the freedom for the QB to pull the ball out of the running back's belly - if he sees the defense over-pursuing in the direction of the action. That can be a huge plus, because linebackers are generally trained to key on guards, especially if they are pulling. And suddenly the defense is going one way, and the ball is going another.
And that's still not accounting for one of the other staples of the Malzahn attack, constant motion. Backs, tight ends and receivers are almost always moving pre-snap, changing the strength of formations, moving alternate runners around with various counter-motions and just confusing the hell out of the defensive back-seven in general. See the below video:
Malzahn's not afraid to fake the ball to a back and hand it to a wide receiver or vice-versa. The offense will also play-fake to one or multiple players in order to create an open passing window.
As for the passing game, it's mostly play-action based and relies on a number of concepts. Most modern passing attacks are based on different variations of these:
As well as some of the basic route combo designs like the slant/arrow, curl/flat, plus various screens. These concepts can all be applied to attack man-to-man, zone and combination coverages, and when you combine them with the elaborate fakes Auburn uses, it can often create single coverage for the receivers or voids in the zone for them to exploit. Mario Fannin and fullback Eric Smith also get quite a bit of play in the passing game in H-back/tight end roles. Fannin has caught 52 passes in the last 19 games (spanning the 2009/2010 seasons) and you'll see him on some of the shallow crossing routes, where he can be isolated on a linebacker or a safety. Smith will line up wide occasionally, where he can block on some of the screen plays.
The bubble screen is also incorporated into the Auburn's zone-read run game, as seen below:
It's a take-off of the classic triple-option, only the choices are dive, keep or the quick screen throw. Look for the bubble screen to get some play as a blitz read against some of LSU's "mustang" defensive packages.
Now, the offense has changed somewhat to fit the skill set of Newton. In particular the adoption of the midline veer into Auburn's typical zone-read.
Whereas a quarterback in the typical zone-read will read an unblocked defensive end and hand the ball inside, here the read is an unblocked defensive tackle, usually a 3-technique player. Florida used this variant of the read-option as well with Tim Tebow (and continues to force it on the current offense). It fits when you have running backs that are better off-tackle or outside runners, such as Fannin, Michael Dyer, Onterio McCalebb or Jeff Demps and a bigger quarterback who can handle inside running.
The typical option plays are also more frequent staples. But you can expect the mid-line veer and the classic trap plays to get some heavy use on Saturday in order to isolate the most dangerous player in the LSU front-seven, Drake Nevis. The Cookie Monster will have to tone down some of his trademark aggression in favor of sound gap discipline, as Auburn will likely try and let him take himself out of plays with his up-field rush. Holding the line and allowing the play to be funneled to another tackler will be more important at times. And on those occasions he does get caught with the trap block, Kelvin Sheppard will have to shed his guy and make the tackle. More information on some of the ways the Tigers will try and defend this attack will come in Friday's What to Watch For column.