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Dr. Saturday

Deconstructing: Auburn’s spread-era twist on a Lombardi-era classic

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

It's no secret: With Florida coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a make-or-break night for both teams, Auburn's passing game is approaching dire straits. In three games against ranked teams, quarterback Barrett Trotter has completed fewer than half his passes, served up four interceptions to just two touchdowns and brought on a hail of calls for backup Clint Moseley. True freshman Kiehl Frazier, an athletic change of pace in "Wildcat" sets, may be prohibited from putting the ball in the air again this season after throwing two ugly picks in last week's 38-14 loss at Arkansas.

In the absence of a consistently viable arm, the Tigers have turned increasingly to the ground. Two weeks ago, they ran the ball 67 times for 246 yards in a 16-13 upset at South Carolina, 41 of those carries on the back of sophomore tailback Michael Dyer alone; last week, they ran 52 times for 291 yards at Arkansas, despite trailing by two scores for most of the second half. For all of the hype surrounding offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as a new-age spread guru, the only SEC team running more often over the first half of the season as a share of its total offense is LSU.

And more than any other play, Malzahn has turned to a familiar, fire-and-brimstone classic: The buck sweep. Even run out of the shotgun, and even gussied up with some of Malzahn's patented misdirection, the basic Lombardian principles at the line of scrimmage and at the point of attack remain the same.

McCalebb of Influence. Against Clemson, the Tigers lined up in something akin to a new-age wishbone, with two tailbacks (Dyer and lethal speedster Onterio McCalebb) and a fullback (Phillip Lutzenkirchen) offset to the right side of the line — what will become the play side — as an H-back. Clemson shows a standard 4-3 look with a cornerback moving down as the eighth man in the box:{YSP:MORE}

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At the snap, McCalebb doesn't move a muscle. Most of the defense follows suit: Only two Clemson linemen initially engage Auburn blockers, while strongside end Malliciah Goodman is slow off the ball and unblocked weakside end Andre Branch is forced to stay at home to account for McCalebb on a possible misdirection. The linebackers are momentarily frozen by indecision — stay home, or crash the initial action and risk being burned by misdirection? In the meantime, Auburn's pulling guards, John Sullen and Jared Cooper, have an unfettered path to lead Dyer to the outside:

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By the time the defense reacts to the fact that Dyer has the ball, it's too late: The interior line has failed to disrupt the angles of the pulling guards, Lutzenkirchen has successfully attacked Goodman at the line of scrimmage, the play-side receiver has a clear angle to crack back on the outside linebacker and Auburn has two 300-pounders lumbering into the flat — Sullen and Cooper — with only a 180-pound cornerback in their way. The other linebackers, preoccupied with the threat of a backside option with Trotter and McCalebb, have been so slow to react that they don't even have to be blocked:

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With a four-on-three situation on the outside, the hole opens cleanly for Dyer between the blocks of Lutzenkirchen and Sullen…

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… and it becomes a footrace down the sideline that Dyer easily wins:

As with any misdirection offense, a defense that's indecisive about its assignments or attempts to diagnose a play in progress rather than attacking based on its initial keys is a defense that's going to look like it's wearing shoes made of lead.

Counterpunch. Last week, Arkansas offered a how-to lesson in taking the fight to the offense. On the first play of the second half, Auburn lined up in essentially the same formation you see above (with the exception that the split end is now on the play side) after motioning Dyer into the backfield. Again, the Razorbacks show an eight-man front with two safeties playing a little shy of ten yards deep — a consequence in this case of their lack of respect for Kiehl Frazier's arm:

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Where Goodman was slow off the ball and the linebackers indecisive on Dyer's long touchdown run at Clemson, the Razorbacks attack: By the time Dyer has the ball, play-side end Jake Bequette has beaten Lutzenkirchen's block into the backfield and disrupted pulling guard Chad Slade's path to the outside, while linebacker Jerry Franklin has successfully attacked the crack-back block from the play-side wide receiver. On the flanks, outside linebacker Jerico Nelson and his backside counterparts are in position to contain both Dyer on the sweep or Frazier/McCalebb on the misdirection:

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By the time Dyer reaches the line of scrimmage, Franklin and Nelson have closed in and the "hole" is a jumbled mess of three Auburn blockers against five Razorback defenders:

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From there, Dyer is forced to reverse field, where he quickly runs into the Razorbacks' backside pursuit...

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…and is brought down for a gain of about a yard:

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Dyer had another big game against the Razorbacks — 112 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, his fourth 100-yard effort in the last five games — but nearly half of that number came on a single carry for 55 yards, and Auburn was blanked in the second half when forced into catch-up mode.

That shouldn't be a problem against Florida: The Gators are starting a true freshman quarterback of their own, Jacoby Brissett, who did next to nothing in his first start last week at LSU. Both teams are down for a low-scoring slugfest that keeps their beleaguered young passers in their comfort zone. If Auburn gets its way, Florida will be chasing Dyer to the sideline all night — and if it ever forgets about McCalebb coming the other way, then possibly chasing him into the end zone.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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