Once again, as LSU prepares to take on those other...whatever they call themselves, (it's kind of a big game, in case you haven't heard), I decided to get a little first-hand intel from one of my College Football News colleagues, also an Auburn fan, Brian Harbach.
1. The Auburn fan base as a whole seems incredibly confident entering this weekend. Just how confident are you?
The Auburn fan base is confident because the Auburn team is confident; the way Auburn has won games this season has built confidence in the team. Auburn has won with their defense against MSU, with comebacks against Clemson and South Carolina and in a shoot-out against Arkansas. While LSU brings the biggest defensive challenge so far but no one has been able to contain or limit Cameron Newton. Pretty much any challenge that Auburn has faced they have been able to overcome.
It also helps that the LSU offense has struggled to move the ball against pretty much every team they have faced this year and the quarterbacks have more interceptions than touchdown passes. If this was not a home game for Auburn, that confidence would be much more muted but they are favored with the best player in the country running a very dangerous offense. The confidence is warranted, but for anyone to think the game has already been won hasn't been watching this rivalry the last couple years and isn't paying attention to what Les Miles has done in close games.
2. Should LSU be aware of any other instruments on Saturday, or will this all be one long Cam Newton solo?
A lot of people believe that Auburn is a one man team with Cameron Newton being the sole reason for Auburn's success but that can be said of nearly every quarterback in the SEC. Of course Auburn is a much better team with Newton than without but if he was the only weapon Auburn had, defenses would have stopped him by now. The Auburn receivers are extremely underrated as they have three excellent options in Darvin Adams, Emory Blake and Terrell Zachary. Adams is the go to receiver on third down, Blake has become a physical force on screens and Zachary is the best deep threat.
The Auburn run game has been consistent with the running backs; Mike Dyer (who might be injured) should start while Onterio McCalebb is the change of pace back. LSU fans might remember the only touchdown Auburn scored last year in the game as a catch by Philip Lutzenkirchen and he has been great this season when his number is called. Auburn is capable of moving the ball through the air and on the ground but they haven't needed to throw the ball yet this season. In the win over Arkansas where Auburn scored 65 points, they completed 10 of 15 passes. The offense has a lot of weapons with eight players having scored touchdowns longer than 30 yards.
3. Two teams have had degrees of success slowing down this offense -- Mississippi State and Clemson. What did those teams do to fluster the Auburn attack?
Both Clemson and Mississippi State did a great job with Newton because Auburn was still starting to learn what they had at Quarterback. Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn didn't even know what he had taking the snaps because the offense they wanted to run was supposed to be more run dominant by the running backs. Auburn's trio of Mike Dyer, Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb has been good, but nearly as productive as Auburn hoped in the preseason.
Both Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn would love to have the backs carrying the load and Newton not carry the ball 20+ times a game but that isn't how the offense can be successful right now. The second half of the Clemson game was when Auburn learned they needed use Newton more as their primary runner because of his ability to break big runs. The Auburn running backs are not doing that right now.
The offense has changed a lot from what it was in the first three weeks to what it became in the South Carolina game. Clemson and Mississippi State shut down the Auburn running backs and most of Newton's rushes came from broken plays. Newton rushes have evolved from first read on the pass play, check down and then run to designed runs on the zone read. That change in philosophy has made Newton more dangerous because they have fit the offense to his talents. Most of his big runs in the first three weeks were from busted plays, the last four games most of his big plays were designed runs.
4. The Auburn defense has struggled this season in spite of a lot of experience. What's been the problem?
The problem is pretty simple, tackling. Auburn's defenders have been in position all season long but the weak arm tackle attempts are being broken for bigger plays. The Auburn coaching staff has realized that their corners are not great and the safeties struggle in coverage so they have been backing off any bump and run or press coverage. In place of giving up big plays Auburn is willing to accept a 6 yard completion with the hope that a tackle will happen before the play turns into something larger. hat worked against Kentucky but not against Arkansas. Tyler Wilson was not throwing to open receivers in broken coverage, he was making great throws in tight spaces and then Auburn would miss the tackle.
Auburn is refusing to give up the big play and they seem fine with giving up the short passes. The secondary is not aggressive at all and it is by design. It has worked so far, but only to the frustration of fans who expect more from Gene Chizik who coached three straight Thorpe Award winners. Auburn's defense has been great when quarterbacks are going into deep drops so the defensive line can get collapse the pocket. Quick three step drops are what offenses have been successful doing, especially with the corners playing so far off the receivers. The Auburn front seven is SEC ready, but the secondary is an obvious weak link and that won't change this weekend.
5. This season seems like one long trek towards madness, and this rivalry knows plenty of that over the years. Knowing these things, do you care to venture a prediction for Saturday?
I like Auburn this weekend for two reasons; first the game is in Auburn and because of Cameron Newton. Auburn's game day atmosphere has changed dramatically since Gene Chizik's arrival and the crowd has faith that even if Auburn is behind the team is capable of coming back. In the last four or five years the crowd could sense a game getting away from the home team and the crowd was not as interested. This team has inspired the crowd to hold on, stay with the game and it will be ok. More importantly though, Cameron Newton has yet to be stopped and while LSU will limit him, they will not take him completely out of the game. Until Auburn loses a close game or can't overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter I will stick with the home Tigers.
Auburn 30 LSU 24
What to watch for on Saturday
The confidence of my colleague aside, stopping Cam Newton (though a relative term), is possible.
The best way to do that is to shrink the game, and shrink the field.
The way to accomplish the former shouldn't be a mystery to anybody who has been reading these columns over the previous seven weeks: run the football.
Auburn's run defense ranks 17th in the country allowing 102 yards per game - a gaudy, but deceiving, statistic. The (insert joke about Auburn's nicknames) outfit has allowed over 100 yards four times, including 117 and 198 respective yards to Mississippi State and Clemson, which are the only two rushing attacks ranked in the top 50 nationally. that Auburn has faced this season. And while the total against Miss. State may not seem that impressive, consider that the Bulldogs passed for a total of 129 yards and completed just 45 percent of their passes. Stopping the run was really all Auburn had to worry about. Even Arkansas, despite rushing for just 138 yards (and the Razorbacks rank just 96th in rushing offense), averaged 4.9 a carry last week.
The most important part Auburn's rush defense, is their offense and its ability to take teams out of their game plans by jumping out to big leads. Opponents' yards per carry drop over a yard as the (other) Tigers' lead increases over a touchdown (from 3.9 with a 1-7 point lead to 2.3 when leading by 15 or more - courtesy cfbstats.com).
That isn't to say that run defense can't help slow teams down. Obviously, defensive tackle Nick Fairley has been beastly this season, and he's a worthy partner to Drake Nevis for all-conference honors. The defensive line around him, however, is less than stellar. Ditto for the Tiger linebackers, aside from middle linebacker Josh Bynes. There's a reason why Auburn's allowed 20 or more points in 13 of the now 20-game Gene Chizik era. The talent's just not there yet.
And that's not even getting to the hot garbage that is the Auburn secondary, which has allowed six of seven opponents this year to complete at least 60 percent of their passes, and three to complete over 70 percent.
The best way LSU can defend Auburn's explosive attack is by keeping it off the field. Run the ball with Stevan Ridley, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware, and when Jarrett Lee is in at quarterback, focus on a short passing game (another seven catches for Russell Shepard would be nice), with lots of slants and quick hitches/screens (as Paul previously noted). If the offense can avoid trying to force the action, and be patient, the big play will come to it.
As for Jordan Jefferson, look for a script on his first drive or two very similar to what we saw against Florida. Heavy on the run and the read option. In fact, Auburn's defense could be very vulnerable to a well-executed option. Yes, I am fully aware that I just suggested that LSU run the option.
Outside runs such as the jet sweep from Shepard and the zone-toss to Ford or Ware, will also help keep the ball away from Fairley.
Defensively, shrinking the field means closing off the open space Newton and his teammates have to work with. Of course, that's easier said than done, but it's something you have to do in multiple ways. Mississippi State slowed Auburn down with constant blitzing and pressure. Clemson did it with zone coverage and fantastic defensive line play (having Da'Quan Bowers helps).
The conventional broadcast-booth-Craig James-type wisdom usually includes using some sort of "spy" that follows him around the field. And while Newton will, at times, be "spied" in a way, it won't be in that conventional sense. The truth is that the players in this situation, typically linebackers, generally aren't as athletic as the quarterback they're spying on, and a defense suddenly is down a man in pass defense. Besides, John Chavis has made it clear that won't be a part of his plan:
"Our guys are used to playing in our scheme, and that's what we are going to do," Chavis said. "We are not going to go out and reinvent the wheel this week. If you do that then you are looking for things, and it wouldn't send our football team a good message."
*Quote courtesy Shea Dixon, Tiger Sports Digest
The Chief's plan will mostly involve containment and gap integrity. As good as getting up the field has been for the LSU front seven it will have to take a backseat this week. Stay at home, absorb blocks and string plays out, so that the sideline becomes an extra defender. Linebackers will have to stay with their keys and not over-focus on Newton to the point of creating room for other ball-carriers. Against West Virginia, LSU employed a handful of 46 "Bear" fronts.
With Nevis lined up in the "nose" position (heads-up on the center), and Michael Brockers and Pep Levingston lined up in three-technique positions (on the outside shoulders of the guards). It's a front that generally goes with man coverage, so Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne will have to watch for hot-routes from the Auburn receivers.
The Tiger defensive line will also likely use defensive line stunts and twists, such as the "echo" stunt (figure 1 below) which is often used to defend the midline veer option - a play discussed in Wednesday's study session. The defensive end crashes down the line, the three-tech tackle loops outside and the middle linebacker crashes in his place. A bigger mike linebacker like Kelvin Sheppard fits this concept well.
This brings us back to our beloved Cookie Monster.
Look for him to move back and forth between the three-tech and nose positions. It will make it a little tougher for Auburn to use him as a read in their option game. When he's on the nose, look for him to use a "shooter" technique, which basically means coming out low and torpedoing the center as best as you can and causing havoc. It doesn't always result in a tackle, but it can be hell for a team that likes to pull and trap as much as Auburn. And on third downs, look for Nevis to actually serve in a version of that spy role. He'll hang around in the line of scrimmage in the "A" gap, while outside rushers try to force Newton towards him. And while a defensive tackle trying handling Newton in the open field doesn't sound optimum, the idea is that there won't be all that much space for Newton to work with. Shrinkage.
You can also expect to see the 3-2-6 "mustang" front. Chavis has used this dime package as a way of bring pressure from some unorthodox angles, with some inside stunts from linemen like Barkevious Mingo with looping outside blitzes from defensive backs. Tyrann Mathieu has thrived in this set up, but don't be surprised if Peterson takes his spot as a blitzer. And as much as you hate to take him out of coverage, it also ensures that LSU's best athlete will be taking on Auburn's. Keeping Newton in the pocket, and forcing him to go through his progressions and make good decisions has a better chance of success than letting him run free and improvise.
As I said on Wednesday, Auburn thrives on misdirection looks that cross up a defensive back-seven and create free runners. LSU's defensive backs, especially safeties Brandon Taylor and Karnell Hatcher, have to stay on point. And remember, Newton has a powerful arm, and the ball will be coming in a hurry. A tendency to watch - Darvin Adams leads the (other) Tigers with eight catches on third downs, with seven conversions. No other Auburn receiver has more than a single catch or conversion.
As John Wooden used to say, be quick, but don't be in a hurry. This is a defense built for speed and it needs to fly to the ball. But it has to make sure the player it's collapsing on has the ball.
Why Oasis? Two guys that share a last name (Gallagher) who can't stop getting in really weird and awesome fights -- such as at this MTV Unplugged session, during which one awesomely heckled the other all night. Meanwhile, we have two teams who share a mascot and seem to get in similarly odd scrapes (yes I know the Gallaghers are brothers, but I'd rather not make that comparison in this analogy, mmkay?). Get them together, get them angry and some weird shit is going to happen.
The Barn may burn. The Byrd may fly. The earth might quake. A referee's brain might break. Whatever happens, it's going to be memorable.
Do NOT Expect
An Air Show
Newton averages 11 completions per game. LSU's passing game is...well...you know by now. The general mood among the Humanoids seems to be "put Lee in and sling it all over Auburn's crappy pass D." Jarrett Lee has played well this year, and absolutely deserves to get more playing time going forward as he continues to play well. But (and this is of course on top of the strategic reasons I've laid out previously in this piece) this offense is, was and will remain better at running the ball than it is passing it. And that has nothing to do with the quarterback.
It won't get the same pub that the John Chavis/Gus Malzahn cat-and-mouse meme will get, but LSU and Auburn's special teams will be an interesting clash as well. Most of the net stats are relatively favorable. Both teams average about 64 yards a kick and around 20 per return, so opposing teams are still generally starting near the 30 yard line. But, Auburn has allowed five returns over 30 yards, including two that went over 40. LSU has only allowed just two over 30 all season. The team's own return averages are at 25 yards as well, but again, the big plays favor LSU here, with eight returns over 30 and four over 40, compared to just six and two for Auburn.
Auburn's only averaging 34.6 net yards a punt, but the more important stat is that they've allowed just four returns in 21 total punts. The directional kicking has been excellent, and it will need to be to keep the ball away from General Zod. Kickoffs may be another story, but if LSU is in a position where Auburn is kicking off a lot, they're in trouble.