Aubserver Mailbag 143: Should Auburn start using more tempo on offense?
This week: Offensive rhythm, player morale, wide receivers, 3-2, 5-star flips, Chaney Johnson, the NBA, the Braves offseason and candy
WR Koy Moore (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
It’s hard to believe that, after Saturday, we will be two-thirds of the way done with college football season and into the wild month of November — when college basketball returns to our lives.
Between now and the next mailbag, we’ll have a potential season-shifting matchup for Auburn football against Mississippi State, along with the basketball Tigers’ exhibition game against AUM. We’re about to learn a lot about both teams in a short amount of time.
This week’s mailbag is mainly focused on what’s gone wrong with Auburn’s offense, which has been the top discussion topic here at the Observer all week long. We tackle questions about offensive pace, the quarterback rotation, wide receiver play and a whole lot more.
We wrap up with a question about a player whose hype train is only picking up more steam in basketball, the start of the NBA season, the MLB offseason to come and — of course — Halloween candy.
I'm not sure if this is me being overly optimistic, but I felt like some semblance of an offensive rhythm was found on the last drive of the game on Saturday. I don't know how much of that was due to Jarquez's long reception sparking whatever momentum was needed, or how much was because Ole Miss was somewhat coasting to the end, knowing the game was all but won.
But regardless, my optimism has me thinking that that drive could be one that is built upon going into this late stretch of the season.
Do you think that it would be fair to look back at that drive and consider it — outside of the sacks taken — largely successful drive that can be built upon, or would you be skeptical to call it that since it was at the end of the game and essentially in garbage time?
And if you aren't too skeptical, what specifics do you think can be built on from that drive, would it be the tempo, the scheme/personnel, or some other aspect?
Did the last few series on offense against Ole Miss count as “garbage time” from a statistical standpoint?
What are the chances we see more tempo from the offense against State?
A lot of attention has been placed on Auburn’s last drive against Ole Miss, but I want to extend it out to the final two possessions. The Tigers went seven straight drives with five 3-and-outs, a five-and-out and a first-play interception. Those drives went a total of 30 yards.
On the penultimate drive of the game for Auburn, the Tigers went 40 yards. While some of it came on a pass interference drawn by Rivaldo Fairweather — off of a quick throw that Payton Thorne would go to a few more times — Auburn went at least six yards on four of five plays early in that drive. Thorne scrambled a couple of times and also hit Fairweather and Jay Fair for good gains before a deep-shot pick.
On the final touchdown drive, Auburn had to convert a fourth-and-15 with a scramble drill to Jarquez Hunter that flipped the field. After a second sack, Thorne went quick to Caleb Burton III for 13 yards, followed by Fairweather for nine yards and an 8-yard score.
During both of those drives, Auburn played fast, got the ball out of Thorne’s hands quickly and used a spread-out 11 personnel package with Fairweather often lining up as a big slot receiver. In addition to the receivers listed above, Camden Brown and Shane Hooks also got onto the field out wide for the Tigers.
The situation didn’t qualify for the statistically accepted definition of “garbage time,” as a two-score game is still plenty competitive — even if it might not have felt that way inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. And it wasn’t like Ole Miss was sitting back in prevent defense, either. The Rebels sacked Thorne twice and pressured him into scrambling on those drives. In fact, Ole Miss sent seven on the touchdown pass.
And it’s not like this is the very first time we’ve seen Auburn’s offense work the ball down the field late in games with more of a two-minute mentality. After struggling to do much of anything during the middle of the LSU game, Auburn went on an 84-yard touchdown drive in which Thorne threw it five times and dropped back to pass for another before it got finished off by Robby Ashford in the low red zone.
It doesn’t have a perfect success rate as a strategy — Auburn turned it over on downs rather quickly on its next drive against LSU — but it’s something positive. And, for an offense that has struggled to do much of anything against quality competition this season, it’s something to think about for sure.
“I don’t know if it was necessarily the tempo or not,” Thorne said this week, when asked about the late drive. “That was, I guess, a part of it. We got to the stuff that we had practiced in the pass game and we executed it. And the guys did what they were supposed to do. Ran the routes correctly. And we had a chance to throw it down the field. I feel like we did it well at the end of the game.”
Hugh Freeze has sounded non-committal when it comes to playing with more tempo, and I get it. He knows his defense isn’t deep, and he knows that this offense is better running the ball than it is throwing it. Shortening the game and playing more methodically made sense in theory. It just hasn’t worked this season.
But here’s my amateur take on the matter: Auburn’s defense just played the most up-tempo test it’s going to face all season. Ole Miss had clear advantages in total plays run and time of possession for virtually the entire game. Yet the Tigers played quite well against them defensively, buying plenty of time for the offense after a slow start. They might have worn down some late, but I chalk up those late Ole Miss touchdowns more to Auburn’s own mistakes and the Rebels just making good plays than fatigue.
Mississippi State is the perfect team for Auburn to try to speed up, too. The Bulldogs have run the fourth-fewest plays in the entire country this season. They’re not going anywhere quickly. We’ve also seen faster-paced teams like LSU and even Western Michigan get some good offensive numbers against a Mississippi State defense that has real potential up front but has given up a lot on the back end recently.
Auburn looks more comfortable playing in this kind of style. Thorne looks more comfortable getting the ball out of his hands quickly, and Mississippi State is not a matchup where you want to sit in the pocket for too long. While the Tigers have struggled out wide, players such as Fairweather, Fair, Burton and Brown have proven they can make plays in space. There’s still room to do the multi-back and multi-tight end stuff with Ashford, but spread it out and let your more proven weapons play together.
Freeze said earlier this week Auburn has to have balance and key on what it’s good at through the air. I totally agree. While I don’t think there’s value in the Tigers going hammer-down in terms of pace on every play — you still need to be smart about it — their passing offense has looked at its relative best this season in this type of attack. And this matchup against Mississippi State looks like a good one to use more of that.
What does hearing “talent gap” do to the morale of the current players… if anything?
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