Let’s get it out of the way right off the bat: Auburn may run the spread, but they’re not a finesse team. Much like Philadelphia Eagles and former Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s philosophy is to spread the opposing defense to run the ball down the defenses’ throat. (I highly recommend reading Chris Brown’s Grantland piece on Kelly’s old school approach here, as it applies equally well to Malzahn’s offense.)
Malzahn’s philosophy is unified in pursuit of this aim, with every aspect of the Auburn offense, from the spread formations to tempo to the constant use of motion, aimed at keeping the defense off balance to set up a downhill power rushing attack.
Multidimensional Running Game
That an offense cannot be one-dimensional if it wants to be successful is a long-established football truth. Most understand this to mean that an offense must be able to run and pass, and while there’s some truth to that, the real purpose of offensive balance is to keep the defense off balance by having appropriate counters for when defenses try to take something away.
As a result, option teams like Auburn don’t really need to be able to throw especially well in order to have balance because their variety in the running game brings its own type of balance. Auburn’s form of balance relies primarily on having multiple (and sophisticated) run packages to counter and constrain what the defense is able to do.
That is not to say that Auburn cannot throw the football, as quarterback Nick Marshall has a strong arm and has been able to create big plays in the passing game with his ability to throw the deep ball, but the success of Auburn’s vanilla passing game is very much predicated on defenses being forced to commit extra resources to stopping the run.
The complexity of the Auburn rushing attack is in contrast to the simplicity of Florida State’s approach. While the inside and outside zone plays comprise over 75% of FSU’s running game, Auburn sometimes uses upwards of seven or eight different run concepts on a single drive, forcing the defense to account for different blocking packages, backfield action, and ball carriers, hoping to slow the defense down by forcing them to think an extra millisecond before reacting—or by missing an assignment altogether.
That’s also where Auburn’s tempo becomes so significant, as it doubly stresses the defense’s ability to diagnose, line up correctly, and cover the correct gaps at warp speed. The constant use of various motions also serves the same function, designed to put the defense out of position as it tries to realign to what has become a new formation before the snap.
Finally, all the backfield action is designed to affect the defense’s eyes (remember, they’re operating fast), since one defender getting out of his proper gap in the effort to pursue another option can lead to a huge play.
Taken together, Auburn runs a bit of a combination of what Florida State has seen from Clemson and Duke (which runs a similarly complex running game) this year and the old Wake Forest misdirection packages that gave FSU fits early in Jim Grobe’s tenure with the Deacons. They just run it faster and with a much more physical offensive line than any of those teams.
Over the next few days, we’ll break down a few of Auburn’s key run packages for NoleDigest subscribers and explain what the Seminole defense must do well to limit (not stop; that’s not going to happen) the Auburn running game.