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October 16, 2013

Auburn's spread offensve very different from A&M's

When most football fans think of the spread offense, they associate it with the Air Raid which was popularized by Mike Leach at Texas Tech. While the offense has certainly been a hit at the Texas high school level and Leach became a household name because of it, there's other versions of the offense that are much more run heavy even though they borrow most of their passing concepts from the offense. Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez popularized the Spread Option from their days at Florida and West Virginia, respectively, and won multiple BCS bowls and national championships with that offense. Chip Kelly ran zone running plays and some option at Oregon but his version became known more for its extremely fast tempo that used speed as its primary weapon.

Another version of the spread gained notoriety during Auburn's 2010 march to the national championship under Gus Malzahn. Overshadowed by the play of quarterback Cam Newton, Malzahn's version had a different running component than that of Meyer, Rodriguez, and Kelly. Malzahn was a high school coach in Arkansas who moved to the college ranks under former Razorbacks head coach Houston Nutt, went to Tulsa as offensive coordinator for a year where the Hurricane led the league in passing, and then served under Gene Chizik at Auburn during the national title campaign. He left Auburn to go to Arkansas State as head coach for the 2012 season and now is back with the Tigers as head coach running his version of the spread once again.

Malzahn's version of the spread combines all of the elements of the Air Raid, Meyer, and Kelly. The passing game is most akin to the Air Raid with four verticals, smash routes, and bubble screens. Malzahn also likes to go up tempo (although this season the Tigers have slowed the pace quite a bit). Auburn runs inverted veer and zone read like Meyer with the quarterback handling the inside running chores and also uses motion with jet sweeps or to put the running back in the backfield for running plays. However, where Malzahn really differs is that he uses a H back or fullback to serve as a lead blocker. In fact, if the offense looks familiar, it's because Ole Miss (A&M's last opponent) uses many elements of it.

Although Auburn uses a variety of spread formations, this season you'll find most often find the Tigers using three receiver sets with a tailback and an H back. In addition, they don't use as a much motion as they have in past years. Their bread and butter plays this season have been the counter or power and inverted veer.

The inverted veer is the product of having a quarterback like junior college transfer Nick Marshall who weighs 210 pounds, is fast, and is big enough to handle the between the tackles pounding that the play calls for. As with the zone read, the quarterback meshes with a running back and reads one of the defensive ends. However, in the traditional zone read, the quarterback reads the defensive end AWAY from the playside and if the defensive end trails the back down the line of scrimmage he keeps the football. In the inverted veer, the read is TO the playside and both the quarterback and running back option off the playside defensive end. In addition, the running back's path is to the outside as if on a traditional sweep or option pitch. In addition, Auburn will pull a guard who will take a playside linebacker and the H back will align to the playside and take out an outside defender for the running back. For reference purposes, Marshall (who missed the Western Carolina game but is expected to be back for the A&M game) is a much better runner than Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace (and Ole Miss also runs the inverted veer).

Even so, Auburn also has bigger tailbacks than Ole Miss in Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, and Corey Grant (all in the 205 to 210 pound range). Thus, the Tigers are also able to run power or counter off tackle which looks very similar to the inverted veer much more than Ole Miss did. This play is run opposite the side of the H back with one or both guards and the H back pulling to the playside. The pulling guard from the backside kicks out the defensive end or at least neutralizes him, the H back leads through the hole to take the playside linebacker, and the playside guard and center down block on the interior defenders. That's a lot of manpower being thrown at a defensive end who is playing in space on one play versus the inverted veer and then has a 300 pound guard coming at him the next.

With Marshall's running ability, he basically serves as an extra running back to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. Between Marshall, a stable of good backs and an experienced (albeit young) offensive line, the Tigers are averaging 242 yards per game (second in the SEC) and 46 carries per game (leads the SEC). However, Marshall is not the passer that Wallace is even though he's hitting about 59% of his attempts and averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. His footwork and mechanics aren't on the level of most of the dropback passers in the Southeastern Conference. In addition, their receiving corps blocks well in the run game but has only one real deep threat in Sammie Coates who averages 24 yards a reception. Thus, most of what the Tigers do in the passing game is geared toward play action. The Tigers use their outside receivers to work toward the middle of the field and hold the safeties and use a back on a wheel route out of the backfield. In addition, they will fake inverted veer or counter one way and roll the quarterback the other. The H back comes across the formation and underneath into the flat while a tight end or slot runs a crossing route over the formation and the outside receiver to the playside clears everyone out. They will fake zone and hit a slot on a short post or slant over a linebacker who's been drawn in by the play action. Finally, they will roll Marshall out to one side and run what's called a curl/flat combination with the slot going to the flat and the outside receiver running a curl route over the top.

Malzahn doesn't have many running plays but he has enough to gear to them to the strength of his offense regardless of who the quarterback is. In addition, he doesn't just use zone read and inverted veer to gain an advantage in numbers. He'll pull linemen and backs to run power plays off tackle. He'll also motion people across the formation or into the backfield and even has a play akin to the statue of liberty where Auburn fakes zone read going one way and the quarterback flips the ball behind him to a back going the opposite way. The formation that Ole Miss used Saturday night in the second half to mount a comeback where they played an offensive tackle as a tight end and Auburn which uses the exact same setup. Given the Rebel's success with it, you can probably plan on seeing it again with Auburn.

A&M was successful against the zone read and inverted veer plays because their perimeter defenders played their best games of the year versus the run. Defensive ends aligned themselves farther outside and the down linemen freed up the linebackers to make plays near the line of scrimmage. It wasn't until Ole Miss started using power and counter plays with an extra offensive lineman that they really opened their running game and play action passing game to the tune of four touchdowns in five possessions.

As a result, although A&M should be prepared to see more of the option game that they saw against Ole Miss, they should also be prepared for some power concepts that Ole Miss used successfully that they borrowed from Auburn. In addition, although Auburn and Ole Miss both generate about the same amount of big plays, they do it differently…Ole Miss uses its running game to set up a corps of fast receivers down the field while the Tigers outnumber you at the point of attack and get good downfield blocking in the running game to trigger theirs. The Aggies will need to continue to roll people into the box to stop the running game and trust their corners in man coverage (who have held up very well in their last two games) in order to play the same type of defense against Auburn that they did in the first half versus Ole Miss.

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