The big change that turned around Auburn’s offense — and its season
Auburn has looked like a different offense the last three weeks. Some of that is the opponent. But a lot of it goes back to one decisive move.
QB Payton Thorne (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — After Auburn’s red-hot first quarter on offense cooled down some to a pair of field goals in the second quarter, the Tigers were ready to reassert their dominance of Arkansas after halftime.
Auburn leaned on a phenomenal ground game, with Jarquez Hunter and Payton Thorne going back and forth with carries until Damari Alston moved the chains on third-and-1 inside the red zone.
Then, on first down at the Arkansas 14, Auburn got into a trips formation to the right with an attached tight end on the same side of the field.
Ja’Varrius Johnson was between Shane Hooks on the outside and Rivaldo Fairweather in the slot. All three split-out receivers had defensive backs across from them in coverage, with Arkansas playing roughly seven in the box with a safety over the top.
At the snap, Fairweather shot out in a flat route to the outside, looking like he was going to catch a screen pass that the Tigers had run multiple times in recent weeks. Arkansas played it aggressively, with Fairweather’s matchup charging in hard… as well as the defensive back who was responsible for Johnson in coverage.
As Hooks took his cornerback on the outside toward the inside on a post route, Johnson flared up and to the outside on a wheel route — even hesitating slightly, mimicking a receiver looking to block for a teammate on a screen pass.
Johnson was wide open. Touchdown Auburn. The Tigers were now up by 30-plus.
It was an aggressive call, going to the air on first down after walking down the field through the rushing attack.
It wouldn’t be the last. In fact, it was one of two such calls on back-to-back snaps.
On the very next drive, after Auburn took over at the Arkansas 11-yard line following a long fumble return from Caleb Wooden, the Tigers’ offense took the field in a five-wide set.
Hunter started out to the right of Fairweather on the right side, and three other receivers lined up together on the left side. Thorne put Hunter in motion, which brought the defender responsible for him completely across the formation. It also created a one-on-one opportunity for Fairweather — who had a whole lot of space to operate on the right side.
Fairweather ran a fade. Thorne hit him on a back-shoulder ball inside the pylon. Touchdown Auburn. The Tigers now led by nearly 40, halfway through the third quarter.
Those plays might not seem overly significant, considering the Tigers had the game well in hand and were basically naming their score against the Razorbacks.
But those two first-down touchdown passes were the latest examples of a philosophy shift that has resurrected Auburn’s offense over the past three weeks — and, in turn, its entire 2023 season.
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