Saturday, December 17, 2011

auburnscouting: the offense

So this, obviously, got a lot less scary when Auburn suspended its leading rusher.  It also got a little bit more X-factor-ey, as we will see.  What we do know: Gus Malzahn will stick around to coach Auburn in the bowl game.  When it's only Arkansas State you're going to, you can do that.  So we should expect to see all the Malzahney stuff that he's known for.

the basics

Auburn's offense under Malzahn is a no-huddle, hurry-up style.  The formation is called, then the play, and the formations are many.  The defense is given little to no time to substitute or set, and it's this principle that Auburn tries hardest to exploit, rather than running outlandish plays.  That's especially true this year, as there was no Cam Newton behind center.  Things got simplified some, with 80-90% of the plays being run by a pocket passer.

Still, that's not to say it won't be different.  Auburn's base set is a three-receiver set with a tailback and an H-back.  The starters:

QB: Clint Moseley (So.)
RB: Onterio McCalebb (Jr.)
HB: Philip Lutzenkirchen (Jr.)
WR: Emory Blake (Jr.)
WR: Quindarius Carr (Sr.)
WR: Travante Stallworth (Jr.)
LT: A.J. Greene (Sr.)
LG: Chad Slade (rFr.)
C: Reese Dismukes (Fr.)
RG: John Sullen (Jr.)
RT: Brandon Mosley (Sr.)

The H-back is a hybrid fullback and tight end, sometimes lining up on the line and sometimes in the backfield.  Three wide receivers is par for the course and Auburn runs most of their plays that way, but even though tempo and not scheme is the mainest focus, they're not above coming out in crazy formations.

the scheme

Crazy this:

This is one of those space-age things that spread coordinators these days come up with.  Because teams often play a very basic vanilla set against the hurry-up (lacking the time to send in anything fancier) this kind of formation opens up some wild possibilities.  Auburn would throw downfield on this play with the receiver just failing to haul it in, but check the flat as Moseley releases:

Holy blown coverages, Batman.  I think that's McCalebb out there, and trust me when I say whoever it is would have run for a touchdown if Moseley had looked in his direction.  The whole Samford defense swung to the short side of the field as McCalebb took off on a delayed route, having nobody to block.

However now, this is a more conventional look that is much more common:

Here you have three wide receivers with four routes, as the H-back is on the line.  (Bottom of the offensive line, just inside the 40.)  He's not covered by a receiver, so he might either block or go out for a pass; in this play he will do the latter, but the throw will be to the slot receiver on an out route for the first down.  This is what passes for vanilla in the spread.  (It also receives the FOV seal of approval, because one of my biggest pet peeves in the entire galaxy is running plays like toss sweeps and out routes to the short side of the field.  Here Auburn forces Samford to defend a much larger patch of grass.)

The H-back is a major key to this offense.  Lutzenkirchen has 24 catches, which is second-most on the team (McCalebb and Blake are tied for the lead, meaning Lutzenkirchen has more catches than all but one of the receivers.)  His presence forces linebackers to make a choice; play the slot receiver, or play the H-back?  On the very next play after the crazy-formation one above, Lutzenkirchen would score on a 3rd and 10 when Samford's defense chose poorly.

There are two things you will see almost none of.  Maybe none at all.  The quarterback directly under center, and pre-snap motion.  It's called a shotgun spread for a reason, OK, and pre-snap motion is largely eschewed because it defeats the purpose of going up-tempo.  The shotgun is basically 100% of the time; pre-snap motion does occur, but it's never things like the lazy jog back and forth across the formation to allow the quarterback to read the defense.  If you do see someone in motion before the snap it'll typically look like this:

A basic shotgun-spread run, where Tre Mason is moving toward the quarterback (he's the one above the wide-side receiver booking it toward the short side) in order to be at the quarterback just after the snap so as to speed up the handoff.  Very standard.

This is not something that's especially unique in college football these days.  However, the ACC doesn't have much of it.  The main thing UVA will have to deal with is the up-tempo style, and finding ways to disguise and change up the defenses despite the lack of time to do it in.  If the offense substitutes, they're required to allow the defense to as well, but it's still something that has to be done in a rhythm and on one's toes.  Similar to playing Georgia Tech, it requires assignment football.  Unless a blitz or something is dialed up, the defense can't allow itself to be bamboozled by formations.  Auburn likes to go with a lot of different formations and a variety of plays - they'll throw deep and then run an old-school option the very next play - but the running back is still the running back.

the personnel

The first thing to note is the quarterbacks.  Auburn runs essentially the quarterback platoon that UVA fans actually wanted to see; Clint Moseley is the starter, and freshman Kiehl Frazier will run in for a play, then run out.

Frazier isn't much of a thrower, and he's only attempted 12 passes and completed five of them, and two more to opposing defenses.  He carries an unbelievable 32.1 passer rating.  It's not like we shouldn't expect Auburn to do some different things, especially since Malzahn isn't exactly at risk of being fired for his performance here and is kind of playing with house money.  But Frazier throwing the ball isn't really our concern.

What he'll come in the game to do is largely run the zone read.  The zone read is becoming a staple of loads of offenses, even non-spread ones.  The basic idea is that the QB reads the defensive end, hands off if the end crashes inside, and keeps if the DE hesitates outward to play the handoff.  (There's, like, way more to it than that, as it's not like "the zone read" is even a single play any more.  Defenses have ways of defending it besides just telling the DE to go one way or the other, and offenses are likewise adapting.  But that is the main idea.)  Anyway, Frazier comes in largely for that purpose.  With Frazier in, UVA would be well-advised to stack the box and take our chances with our cornerbacks one-on-one on the Auburn receivers.

Moseley is less of a running threat than Frazier is a passing threat.  You get the idea that the Malzahn offense would much prefer to have a running quarterback in there - you know, Cam Newton and all - but Moseley is their best best for moving the ball through the air.  He's a little bit of a better passer than Barrett Trotter.  Moseley has a good strong arm, but is still rather limited in his ability to move past the first read on the play.  In this latter respect he's a typical college sophomore quarterback.

How Auburn will use their running backs is a bit of a mystery.  McCalebb is a pass-catching back; Dyer never was, with only two receptions on the season.  Dyer and McCalebb split the carries about 2.5-to-1, but it'd be oversimplification to suggest that McCalebb and Mason will do the same.  They might, but it's tough to bank on it.  McCalebb will no doubt get heavy use, but it may well be that the carries in the bowl game are split more evenly between them so that McCalebb is fresh; he's not only a pass-catching threat, but he returns kicks, too.

Auburn's receptions chart looks a lot like Al Groh's used to, with wide receivers on it only sparingly.  Emory Blake is the biggest threat, and he's a solid, all-around player.  Chase Minnifield will likely draw that assignment.  After that....there isn't a lot.  Blake has only 30 catches but 505 yards; the receiver with the next-most catches is Trovon Reed, who averages just 7.8 yards a catch.  Auburn is unlikely to be able to stretch the field with its receivers; Blake and Lutzenkirchen are the folks that the UVA defense should keep its eye on the most.  It might be said that the presence of all these receivers on the field is just to keep the defense spread out and force them to play the run honest.  (You know, I wonder if that's why they call it a "spread" offense?  Hmmm.)

UVA has had good fortune on the offensive line; we have been able to start the same five players at the same five positions all season.  That can't be overstated as a factor in our success.  Auburn hasn't had the same luck; the only player to start every game at the same position is center Reese Dismukes.  Dismukes is a true freshman but a good one; one of the top freshmen in the SEC.  But despite the quality of the run game, the line is shaky in pass-protection; they've allowed 2.5 sacks per game, and that's not just a function of playing against SEC-speeeeeeeeed at defensive end.  Samford and Utah State each collected two, and Florida Atlantic got three.

the stats

To break it down to its simplest level, Auburn is a very good running team and a non-frightening passing one.  Auburn's total and SEC-only rushing stats are almost exactly the same, which should give you a little ammo the next time someone tries to spring it on you that Auburn's SEC status gives them the benefit of always playing better competition than we did.

Passing-wise, though, Auburn managed just 126 yards a game in SEC play and 153 overall.  This is largely a function of preferring to run.  Only ten teams in the country attempted fewer passes than Auburn.  Three of them are GT, Army, and Navy, the triple-option old-schoolers.  One is Ohio State, which if you ever saw them try and pass the ball you'd know why they never pass.  One is Michigan, which if you ever saw them run the ball you'd know why they never pass.  Auburn is in the middle between those last two; not a passing incompetent, and not a running powerhouse, but good enough at the latter and bad enough at the former that they'd really rather keep it on the ground.

I have no idea how the absence of Dyer changes that dynamic, though.  Do they pass more without their 1,200-yard beastback?  My guess is no.  Teams are what they are; I think it would simply be playing into UVA's hands to suddenly start heaving it all over the place.  Moseley isn't so accurate that that would definitely be a winning proposition.  What we might get is a little more of the pass-game-as-run-game sort of play that OC's will deploy; swing passes, bubble screens, and the like.

The other thing from a cursory review of the stats to see what jumps out is: third-down conversions.  Auburn is bad at them; only a 35.6% success rate.  Perhaps because they are not a good passing team?  Perhaps.


So, what are the takeaways?

-- Up-tempo offense with multiple formations and a willingness to run a wide variety of plays.

-- But the space-age stuff comes before the snap, via tempo and formation; variety of plays, yes, but not ones that are new to the football world.

-- Kiehl Frazier is a runner, not a passer; Clint Moseley is a passer, not a runner.

-- No Michael Dyer, which will have an unpredictable effect on the playcalling, even as it takes away Auburn's biggest howitzer.

-- Moseley has a strong arm, but can be gotten to; he rarely progresses beyond his first or second read and does not move well.

-- Auburn wants to run.  They do not want to pass.  They will run sweeps, counters, draws, even reverses, zone reads when Frazier is in the game, and pass only to keep the run defense honest.

There's an element of Georgia Tech in this.  UVA will have success if the cornerbacks can stick with their receivers one-on-one.  The difference is that with all the extra receivers Auburn uses, it can't be just Chase Minnifield and Corey Mosley in pass coverage and nine guys playing the run, like how we defended GT.  Auburn will have success if they can isolate the H-back Lutzenkirchen in a desirable matchup, as well as McCalebb who is used in a similar way to Perry Jones.  But UVA will do well if they can be disciplined and play correct assignment football, and I think our veteran defensive line will also have an edge against Auburn's fluid O-line.


There is one thing you might be interested in knowing, and that is that the lacrosse schedule is out.  It is boring.  It is literally last year's schedule with all the locations flipped.  OK, a couple exceptions; we're probably not ever going to travel to VMI (cupcake) or Vermont (weather) and the Penn game is in Denver.  I know that about half the schedule is spoken for with games we will never not play (Hopkins and Cornell and the like), and that some are sort of becoming semi-traditions of their own (like opening up against Drexel for the 11th year in a row) but maybe we could swap a few of these others out every now and again.  Right now there's basically one game on the schedule - Ohio State - that looks likely to be different next year.  Maybe Penn as well.  It wouldn't really bother me, for example, not to see any Stony Brook on there for a while.  Ulterior motive disclosed: now that there are two D-I teams in the state of Michigan I wanna see some action up here.

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