Film Room: How Auburn helped Payton Thorne bounce back in Week 3
The Tigers needed to create more balance in their offense and more confidence in their QB1. After a slow start, they got both vs. Samford.
QB Payton Thorne (Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
Auburn’s first offensive drive against Samford on Saturday night was pretty much going according to plan.
Payton Thorne had scrambled for a loss of a yard — ruled a “sack” by the official scorers — and missed Omari Kelly on what looked like a possible miscommunication. But outside of that, the Tigers were rolling, nickel-and-diming their way to a first-and-goal at the Samford 1.
Then came a trio of plays that had every Auburn fan in Jordan-Hare Stadium or watching at home groaning: Incompletion, incompletion, interception.
Auburn drove all the way to the 1 in its own building against an FCS team and walked away with zero points. You could feel the frustration in the evening air, and it was only amplified by the fact that Thorne and the Tigers struggled so much on offense a week earlier in a 14-10 win at Cal.
Few would have expected what was coming next for Thorne. By the time he left the game early in the fourth quarter, he had put up the most total yards in a single game (405) and the most rushing yards in a single game by a quarterback (123) since Nick Marshall was starring on the Plains.
It wasn’t perfect — Thorne would throw another interception in the second quarter — but it was a lot more of what Auburn needed from its starting quarterback. While few will be overly impressed by big numbers against Samford, Auburn can at least feel like it’s heading into SEC play with some positive momentum from QB1.
In this week’s Film Room, we went back and charted all of Auburn’s offensive snaps from the first three quarters against Samford. Here’s what we learned about Thorne and the Auburn offense in a high-yardage Homecoming win, upon further review.
Let’s begin with those goal-to-go passes…
Naturally, we’ll start here. This was still a talking point for Auburn fans online on Sunday, and for good reason.
It’s important to remember that all of Auburn’s passing plays in this game — and Thorne threw the ball 32 times, plus a number of scrambles — aren’t all straight passing calls.
In fact, of the 31 times Thorne looked to pass in the first three quarters, 15 of them were out of RPOs, while the other 16 were either standard dropbacks or play-actions. (Thorne also had two short “tap passes” to a motioning Jeremiah Cobb on Saturday. Those go down as passing plays but function much more like rushing ones.)
Why did Auburn throw the ball three straight times in a goal-to-go situation, including back-to-back tries from the 1?
“It kind of worked out that way,” Thorne said. “We get to first-and-goal from the 1, you know, I’m thinking — we call an RPO, so possibly hand it off or throw it.”
On first down, Samford is loading up against the run as much as it possibly can — which becomes a theme throughout the night. Auburn has two tight ends on the field and two wide receivers on one side, bringing nine Samford defenders into the box and leaving just two to occupy the receivers outside.
With just seven blockers and nine defenders who will be selling out to the run, Thorne makes the pre-snap read to throw it in 1-on-1 coverage on the outside.
The primary target is Jay Fair, who is going to run a quick out from the slot while Shane Hooks cuts to the inside. This will create sort of a natural pick play, with Fair and Hooks crossing over close to one another — making it tough for their matchups to stay with them in man coverage.
Auburn gets the look it wants, but Thorne simply misfires on the throw, leading Fair too far to the outside and seeing the pass fall incomplete.
“If I just put the ball down, I think he’s catching that,” Thorne said. “He ran a pretty good route. Gonna bring that down for him a little bit. He got a hand on it. Definitely could have made it very easy for him. Would have been a great catch if he did catch it. That’s not on him at all.”
On the next play, Auburn goes with a funky pistol set. There are three tight ends in the formation, bunched to the left side, while Hooks stands alone on the outside. Once again, Auburn is clearly getting 1-on-1 coverage — this time with a big target against a much smaller cornerback.
The call here is straightforward: Either hand the ball off to Jarquez Hunter going downhill — the three tight ends are all blocking — or quickly pull it and try a fade to Hooks. Thorne opted for the latter, but Hooks couldn’t come down with it against some nice coverage from the Samford corner.
“Second one, saw a one-on-one matchup with Shane, thought it was a good chance to rep it in a game and throw it out there for him,” Thorne said.
Auburn clearly had a plan to throw the ball Saturday night against Samford whenever it made sense in terms of the numbers game.
More often than not, Thorne pulled the ball and fired it out to the receivers — and he did well, going 13-15 for 143 yards in the first three quarters on the RPO throws. On these two throws, though, he wasn’t as on-target as he would be later in the game.
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