Can Auburn football still stick to what it wanted its offensive identity to be?
In terms of play-calling, the Tigers had one of their pass-heaviest days in a long time in a lopsided loss. Was that a one-week anomaly or what should be expected now?
RB Tank Bigsby (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn ran 74 offensive plays against Penn State last Saturday. Only 20 of them were designed runs.
That’s a passing call rate of 72.97%.
Think back to the most pass-heavy games that you can remember from the Tigers’ recent offenses. The 2020 South Carolina game probably stands out the most. In that game, Auburn called passing plays 69.66% of the time.
How about the back-to-back-to-back games against Georgia State, LSU and Georgia last season, when Auburn quarterbacks threw the ball at least 43 times in each contest? Those were all below 70% as well. The 2019 Georgia game, when Bo Nix threw the ball 50 times? Also below 70% in terms of pass calls.
And, considering Gus Malzahn’s love of running the ball, it’s probably safe to say that Auburn’s 41-12 loss to Penn State featured the highest percentage of passing calls for any Tigers’ offense in well over a decade. It might take you all the way back to the mid-1990s before you can find an Auburn offense that featured the pass as much as this one.
But that was under Terry Bowden, who had a no-huddle, four-wide offense quarterbacked by Dameyune Craig in 1996 and 1997 that was built to do just that.
That doesn’t look like the preferred option for a roster in which future NFL running back Tank Bigsby is considered to be the best offensive player. And it doesn’t really fit the stated style of Bryan Harsin in 2022, whose team spent the offseason talking about building its attack around the ground game.
That talk continued Monday afternoon, less than 48 hours after that pass-heavy Penn State loss.
“It’s huge for our offense, the run game and being physical up front,” right tackle Austin Troxell said. “That’s our offense. We should be able to run the ball against any defense and go from there. That’s our identity as an offense and that’s what we want to be as an offensive line is to be able to run the ball consistently — no matter what looks we’re getting.”
Yet Auburn only handed the ball off to Bigsby, Jarquez Hunter and Damari Alston a combined 15 times Saturday. In the immediate aftermath of the game, Harsin said the lopsided score led to a more pass-heavy strategy, as the Tigers played from multiple scores behind for most of the second half.
But that doesn’t fully explain the fact that Auburn called 12 passing plays to six rushing plays in the first quarter, then 12 passing plays to seven rushing plays in the second quarter. The two teams were separated by one score for the entire first half. In the second quarter, Bigsby didn’t get a single carry.
On Monday, when asked about if the team needed to establish the running game earlier, Harsin had this to say:
“We want to run the football, but every game is different. You guys don't sit in the meetings and look at the game plan and what they're trying to do. There's really very little understanding of what (Penn State’s) defense was trying to get done as well. So, that dictates the game.”