Film Room: Are Auburn's explosive rushing numbers vs. Ole Miss sustainable?
The Tigers rushed for more than 300 yards against an SEC opponent for the first time since 2017. It came out of nowhere — is there any chance it's more than just a one-off?
RB Tank Bigsby (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Maybe it’s just something about Ole Miss.
In 2021, Auburn rushed for 207 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Ole Miss. The year before that, the Tigers had 224 rushing yards and four touchdowns against the Rebels. Even in a low-scoring win over Ole Miss in 2019, Auburn still had two rushing touchdowns. In 2018, Auburn ran for 269 yards and three touchdowns on Ole Miss. The 2016 and 2017 squads each rolled up 300-plus yards and three scores in this matchup.
During all of Auburn’s six-game winning streak against Ole Miss, big rushing numbers were just part of the equation.
But on Saturday, few people would have expected that to continue. Auburn was in the bottom 10 in several major run blocking statistics nationally. The Tigers hadn’t cracked 120 rushing yards or more than 3.68 yards per carry against a single Power 5 opponent. And undefeated Ole Miss looked tougher on the ground than usual, ranking in the top 20 in FBS in rushing defense.
Then Tank Bigsby broke two explosive runs inside his first three touches of the game. Jarquez Hunter flipped the field with a 48-yard run midway through the second quarter. By halftime, Auburn had triple the amount of running back carries that went for double-digit yardage than it had in any game against a Power 5 opponent all season.
Poor run defense on the other side of the ball, three costly turnovers from the quarterbacks and a game-changing onside kick from Ole Miss ensured that Auburn was unable to extend its winning streak over Ole Miss to seven games.
However, Auburn ran for 301 yards Saturday, which was the most it had generated against an SEC opponent in a single game since the 2017 SEC West title campaign. Bigsby went from barely making an impact for more than a month to posting 179 yards, the second-most of his career. Hunter averaged 8 yards per carry. Starting quarterback Robby Ashford found the end zone twice on the ground.
And this all came behind an offensive line that had to deal with even more changes Saturday. The Tigers started Brenden Coffey in place of the injured Austin Troxell at right tackle. Jeremiah Wright was plugged into the starting lineup for the very first time at left guard, while Kameron Stutts moved to right guard. Stutts left the game early Saturday, too, and Keiondre Jones replaced him.
Yet the Tigers had their best rushing performance in quite a while, potentially breathing some life into what was a largely lifeless part of their struggle-filled 2022 season so far.
Auburn will head into an off week looking to build off of the success on the ground, particularly for the upcoming home game against an Arkansas team that ranks No. 83 in yards allowed per carry (4.26) and gave up some big numbers in a recent three-game losing streak. The next opponents, Texas A&M (No. 111 in run defense) and Mississippi State (No. 105) have also had its fair share of problems on the ground.
But how much of what happened with the Tigers on Saturday is actually sustainable? Is it just Auburn doing what Auburn does against Ole Miss — or was it a sign that the Tigers might be able to show some more offensive fight down the stretch of a difficult year?
Auburn had 36 designed running plays against Ole Miss on Saturday for 290 of its rushing yards. (Ashford was responsible for the additional yardage, plus a touchdown, on scrambles.) All 36 of those designed runs were rewatched and charted for this week’s Film Room.
RB Jarquez Hunter (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Count your boxes
Ole Miss’ base defense is a 3-2-6 — three down defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. The Rebels don’t always go with that strategy, but it’s what you see more often than not.
The scheme blurs the line between linebackers and box safeties. Ole Miss can dedicate more players to defending the pass and is often versatile with how it lines up players before the snap and blitzes.
With fewer players up front and more in the second and third levels of the defense, the way Ole Miss plays can be an invitation for offenses to hammer away with more power. That’s becoming less common in the spread-heavy college football landscape, but teams that still do it can take advantage. Last season, Auburn went heavy with its multi-tight end sets and used them to great success against Ole Miss.
The same thing happened in the rematch between Bryan Harsin and Lane Kiffin on Saturday, at least when it came to the ground game. Of the 36 designed runs, 22 of them came in 12 personnel (one running back + two tight ends) and four others came with multiple tight ends — either 22, 13 or a goal-line 14 personnel grouping.
Auburn only ran 10 designed runs out of 10 personnel for a total of 76 yards. That healthy 7.6 yards per carry mark, though, is lower than what Auburn did in 12 personnel — 22 carries for 197 yards (8.95). It also ran two sweeps to Damari Alston in 22 personnel for an average of 7 yards per touch.
Here’s an example of what having extra blockers can do against a defense like the one Ole Miss runs. Facing a third-and-2 inside its own territory, Auburn rolls out a two-tight end formation from under center.
Ole Miss has three down linemen, two edge rushers and two inside linebackers in the box. That’s usually more than the Rebels have on most plays, but a third-and-short situation has them dedicating a little more to the ground game. Auburn, though, still has a good “hat” situation. It has seven available blockers for the seven box defenders, so it is comfortable to go ahead with the run plan after some pre-snap motion.
It’s not the best blocking in the world for Auburn, but every nearby Ole Miss defender can still be accounted for by an offensive player. The linemen are also able to get out to the second level and meet the linebackers, since they don’t have to be occupied by a lot of down linemen — and the extra tight ends help there.
Bigsby has enough for the first down before an Ole Miss defender even comes close to tackling him, and he breaks off a huge run. Some of the yardage is called back due to a holding call on the perimeter, but it still goes down as a 13-yard gain for Bigsby. A few plays later, the Tigers score and make it a one-score game.
The hat counts are important, especially when the boxes are even lighter from the Ole Miss defense than the example above. That was reflected greatly in the stats from Saturday.
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