Film Room: Auburn's familiar offensive line woes reached a new low against Penn State
Constant pressure on the quarterbacks. Ineffectiveness, then abandonment, of what was supposed to be the heart of the offense. Things got even worse up front Saturday.
QB Robby Ashford (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
The offensive line is truly unlike any other position group in football.
No matter if it’s a running play or a passing play, the offensive line has an impact on every single snap. It’s extra grueling in a sport that’s physically demanding on everybody, with linemen slamming into each other over and over again. It’s also the position group that has to work together in unison more than the rest — if one person doesn’t do their job correctly, it can make the entire line look bad.
Because of that, it’s tough to be successful as a lineman in major college football. The position group is widely known as the hardest to scout and evaluate in recruiting. It also takes the most development time on average, as freshmen or even sophomores rarely break through into starting lineups.
Auburn’s major problems on the offensive line have been well-established at this point. When Bryan Harsin arrived as the Tigers’ head coach, the program had only signed one blue-chip high school offensive lineman in the last four recruiting cycles. In his first full one on the Plains, Harsin wasn’t able to add to that number. Harsin inherited a fire up front, and it’s only burned hotter in his first 16 games here.
The Tigers haven’t had what most would consider “good” offensive line play since 2017, when they won the SEC West title. (That line also had a few notable bad outings, including a loss at Clemson and the Peach Bowl against UCF.)
Auburn notably struggled up front, especially in the rushing department, during the five-game losing streak to end Harsin’s first season in 2021. The team was successful in bringing back several starters for one more season, hoping to make the most of a tough situation that wouldn’t get fixed quickly in recruiting or the transfer portal.
But, in addition to Brodarious Hamm’s departure to the pros and Tashawn Manning’s transfer to noted offensive line developer Kentucky, Auburn lost its most experienced lineman — center Nick Brahms — due to a medical retirement in fall camp. In his place, the Tigers went with Tate Johnson, a third-year junior who had only appeared in mop-up duty two years ago.
On top of that, both Austin Troxell and Brandon Council have suffered major injuries during their college careers, with Council missing a lot of time recently. Keiondre Jones also had an injury early in fall camp and didn’t open the season as an established first-teamer, instead splitting time with first-time starter Kameron Stutts — which continued into Week 3, with the two alternating drives.
Against both Mercer and San Jose State to open the season, Auburn’s offensive line didn’t control proceedings as much as one might have anticipated, considering the size and recruiting talent gap between the teams.
And on Saturday, that so-so start to the season turned into a nightmare in the first big game of the season, as Auburn only scored 12 points against Penn State in the program’s worst home loss since a 3-9 season in 2012.
As Harsin said after the game, everybody plays a part in a result as lopsided as that one. Each staff member in the program and each player who touched the field can share in the responsibility. Auburn’s quarterback play was, once again, quite inconsistent. The defensive meltdown in the second half was unlike anything the Tigers have experienced against a non-Alabama team since, again, 2012.
However, let’s go back to the beginning — the offensive line has to be sharp on every snap, no matter what the play call is. Against Penn State, Auburn had an extremely poor game up front. And that’s where the problems ultimately start and end for Auburn’s offense: If the Tigers can’t win at the line of scrimmage, it’s nearly impossible for them to win anywhere else on the field.
For this week’s Film Room, I reviewed and charted all 74 of Auburn’s offensive plays against Penn State, with a special focus on what happened on the offensive line.
Before we dive in, here’s a reminder that some of the numbers you’ll see in this Film Room are subjective. I could have a different definition of what constitutes as a quarterback pressure than a coaching staff or a stat-tracking service like Pro Football Focus. (My dropback numbers also differ some from PFF, too.) Don’t take all of these actual numbers in here as the unquestioned truth. Your results may vary.
Also, I’m not a football expert, and I’m especially not an offensive line expert. I can have an idea of what should happen on a given play or what I think someone’s assignment was. But, without knowing the actual play calls and the details of them, it would be foolish for me to say a lot of this with absolute certainty.
Still, I think what I saw on film and charted down tells the same story that anyone else would have gathered, whether you work for yourself, PFF or the Auburn football program itself: Auburn’s offensive line was nowhere what it needed to be for the offense to have a chance against Penn State, and that played a huge part in the 29-point loss.
Pass blocking: A whole lot of bad numbers for Auburn
Of the 74 plays against Penn State, Auburn called 54 passing plays and 20 rushing plays. (If that sounds extreme, it is.) Of those passing calls, two were screens, two were RPOs, and one was a fly sweep — the tap-forward play to a receiver in motion that is more of a run but is technically a pass.
That means the Tigers had true dropback passing calls on 49 of its plays against Penn State. And, on those plays, Penn State pressured the quarterback 28 times. That’s a rate of 57.1%. More than half the time Auburn’s quarterbacks looked to throw, the defense affected them.
Here’s how those 28 pressures break down: