There’s no such thing as too many weapons when facing the Tampa 2
Gus Malzahn versus Ellis Johnson, September 25, 2010
Oftentimes a game of football doesn’t rely solely on a memorable play, a single phenomenal athlete, or a critical turnover that results in a game turning moment. It is usually a result of hard work, diligent planning, and a battle of wits between two coaching staffs that relies on timing, execution, and fundamental football strategy.
The Auburn Tigers and Cam Newton in particular produced many memorable single moments in the 2010 season, but behind those spectacular scenes we all fondly remember there was an underlying tactical ‘coaches game’ that set the stage for Auburn’s success. An illustration of this can be found in an early season game between South Carolina and Auburn that provides interesting insight into what may lay ahead for the Tigers of the 2013 season and beyond.
The setting was late September in a game between the eventual SEC East champion and the SEC West champion. The game featured the intersection of the hurry-up-no-huddle offense and the SEC leading run defense that had allowed only 60 yards per game on the ground going into the game.
By the end of the night, that defense would be ranked eighth in the league against the run, having surrendered 334 rushing yards to Cam Newton and Auburn. There were several big plays, the most memorable was a 54 yard scramble by Cam Newton for a touchdown in the first quarter. But there were also a couple of Auburn turnovers that South Carolina converted for scores. In the third quarter, Auburn’s offense began to roll behind Michael Dyer’s running, but South Carolina kept pace with yet another passing touchdown to retain the lead.
The stage was set for the critical moment of the game. Both teams had taken the measure of each others’ game plan. Opposing coordinators had seen what the other side was doing and had made astute adjustments to counter them. Whoever won the mental chess match of defensive coverage and offensive play calling would seal the victory.
Looking over the game film, I found two Auburn drives that illustrated the best of Gus Malzahn’s offense against Ellis Johnson’s stingy defense. South Carolina had a 20-14 lead at halftime, and after trading touchdowns in the third quarter, still led 27 – 21 when they kicked off to Auburn with 4:45 on the clock. The game was still in the balance.
Here’s how both drives panned out.
On a first and ten at the Auburn 20 yard line, Johnson has his team in his usual 4-3 defense. Auburn lines up in its normal set with Cam in the shotgun, flanked by Michael Dyer with a wide out on the wide side of the field and a tight end on the short side and two flankers just outside of both ends of the line.
Cam throws a quick backfield pass left to Emory Blake lined up as a flanker in the backfield. Emory breaks two tackles for 9 yards to the left. Interestingly, the play features a pulling guard to the right which holds the linebackers stationary momentarily as they expect a run play by Newton. He had burned them earlier in the game and evidently they have been coached to stay home on the play.
On second and 1, Cam goes under center, SC shows four rushers but no field pressure, holding the linebackers well back in coverage. The play begins with three receivers wide going deep, a pulling guard to the left (short) side and Cam faking a hand off to Dyer.
Cam then turns to the wide side looking for his receivers, who have all been picked up in coverage. However, both inside linebackers have bitten hard on the run fake and as Cam rolls to the right, they are well out of position on the other side of the line opposite Michael Dyer. Cam is back ten yards behind scrimmage, but with at least 20 yards of open turf in front of him. A single pump fake keeps the coverage honest as he runs for a gain of 10 untouched and out of bounds.
First and 10 at the Auburn 40
Cam is in the shotgun flanked by Dyer, with two wide and Lutzenkirchen in the slot. Prior to the play, Lutz moves to over tackle on the wide side. At the snap Lutz moves right behind the line, Cam fakes to Dyer up the middle and takes a step to pull both middle linebackers in to stop the run as the defense covers all receivers deep. Cam then dumps a quick pass to an open Lutz who is pursued just a split second too late by the corner-back for seven yards.
The next play is Dyer up the middle into traffic for a scant two yards. SC linebackers and defensive line close the hole and stop it short.
Third and one at midfield.
Tight formation, power QB keeper. Cam hesitates for the lane to open then hits the hole for four yards. SC plays the run tight, but the senior Auburn line opens the hole wide for Cam Newton.
1st and 10 at the SC 47 yard line
Auburn runs a buck sweep right which is well defended with both inside linebackers clogging the lane. Dyer sees this early and bounces outside for 3 yards to the 44 yard line.
2nd and 7 at the SC 44
South Carolina blitzes two which are picked up by the line, Cam fakes to Dyer and throws a bullet to Darvin Adams on an inside route 20 yards deep but he drops it. South Carolina defensive backs are cushioning a little deep, but were still there at the catch.
3rd and 7.
Three wideouts, with Eric Smith in the backfield. South Carolina only rushes three, and drop all but one linebacker into zone, blanketing the field. Cam goes through his progression, secure in the pocket, but can only dump it to Smith out of the backfield on the wide side. Smith actually gains a full 10 yards, but fumbles the ball at the tackle. SC defenders bobble it out of bounds four yards back. Auburn retains possession.
4th and inches at SCAR 37
Quick snap from huddle – Cam under center on a QB sneak for a yard and a first down at the SC 36.
1st and 10
Two wide with Lutz in the slot on the wide side, Cam in the shotgun with Smith beside him. SC is a 4-2 with all receivers covered. At the snap Lutz moves left behind the line, Cam fakes to Smith behind a pulling guard to the wide side. SC linebackers take a step forward on the fake, and there is a momentary delay as the inside linebacker realizes Lutz is looking back to the QB as he clears the line.
Too late. Cam drops the ball to Lutzenkirchen who rumbles forward up the sideline for 8 yards. Both the fake and the pulling guard to the right gave the linebacker the impression the run was real just long enough for the H-back to clear his shoulder.
2nd and 2 at the 28 yard line
Hurry up moment – a quick snap before defense was fully set for a power inside run right by Dyer behind the H-back – 5 yards.
1st and 10 at the 23 yard line.
Quick snap again and hand off to Dyer – Lutz again in the lead with a pulling guard, but this time as the linebackers bite, Dyer takes the lane left of center where the guard pulled and the linebacker vacated. Seven yards.
A late flag puts the ball half the distance to the goal on the 8 for first and goal.
SC puts eight in the box and Auburn goes with only two split to the wide side. Cam Newton on a QB delay behind five blockers, but the defenders close well – 1 yard.
2nd and Goal at the 7
SC rushes five as Cam is in the shotgun. Auburn tries to stretch the zone, but all receivers are covered well and the rush starts to penetrate the pocket. Cam has to throw it out of the end zone.
3rd and Goal
Four wide outs, with Dyer beside Cam in the shotgun, SC is in zone coverage with three rushers and a linebacker spying Cam. The end zone is flooded, but Terrell Zachary comes up short of the goal and Cam hits him at the 1 where he is stopped cold.
End of the third quarter, 4th and 1
Power set, two tight ends, Cam in the shotgun. SC puts seven on the line and five behind to try to stop the inevitable power QB dive. Cam easily vaults over, but a false start puts the ball back five yards, and Auburn is forced to try for a field goal, which hits the upright for an uncommon miss by Wes Byrum.
A hard fought drive ends in no point by Auburn. But the South Carolina defense is clearly gassed by the effort. At this point in the game, tragedy strikes South Carolina. On the subsequent play, SC quarterback Garcia fumbles the ball after a crushing hit by Darren Bates and Auburn recovers. The Tigers are back on offense at the SC 26 yard line.
1st and 10 at SCAR 26
Auburn goes three wide, and SC is in man coverage with four down linemen. A fake to Dyer pulls in the wide side linebacker in who is then blocked by the slot receiver, the short side linebacker is picked up by the tackle and the safeties bite down to the center of the field on the fake to Dyer. This leaves a lane to the short side open as the corner is still in coverage deep keeping pace with a streaking Darvin Adams. Cam stutters left and has 15 yards of open turf as the SC linebackers are caught up in the wash in the center of the field. Darvin Adams blocks his cover until Newton catches up to him.
1st and 10 at the 11 yard line.
Three wide and SC in a 4-3 man coverage. A straight hand off to Dyer behind the H-back is defended well but still yields four yards against a tired defense.
2nd and 6 at the 7
Dyer and Lutz are on the short side in the backfield, Kodi Burns is in the slot with Adams and Blake out wide. SC is in a 4-4 with man coverage wide. Drop pass but all four receivers are covered well by seven defenders. Cam pumps once but can’t connect to the corner of the end zone, incomplete.
3rd and 6
Timeout AUBURN due to signal from the sideline being late, 13:40 left in the 4th quarter.
After the timeout, Auburn presents an unbalanced line with two wide on the right side. SC rushes four, keeps both inside linebackers ready to stop the run and drops five into zone. Cam fakes a speed sweep to McCalebb, steps forward and drops his head to almost knee level causing the short side corner and linebacker to lunge forward to play the run.
This gives Lutzenkirchen just enough time to whiff his block and step behind them. Cam straightens and drops it to Lutz in the end zone for a touchdown. Unnoticed on the far side is Kodi Burns, also behind his man as a second option on the play.
The score after this play was 28 – 27. Auburn would tack on one more score to finish the game eight points ahead, 35-27, but the damage was done. Though very well defended, Malzahn’s continuous fakes and reads had clearly gotten the better of Johnson, and his use of the H-back was devastating. Time and again, Lutzenkirchen and Smith were just one step ahead of the defenders to receive the ball before they realized where the play was going. When the defenders became tired, those single steps became three and made the difference in the success of each key play of the drive.
Keep in mind, this wasn’t some mid-tier conference defense. By the end of the season, South Carolina was ranked as one of the top ten defenses in the nation, and second in the SEC behind only Alabama. But with the weapons that Malzahn was able to field, and the astute play calling at this critical stage of the game, he clearly had the upper hand.
It is also important to note that while the quality of players was evident during these two drives, there weren’t any big plays by Auburn nor any critical mistakes defensively by South Carolina. The only pass other than the last one over 10 yards was dropped. There were few broken tackles. Most of the big gains were runs or catches in an open field empty of defenders. This battle was purely a chess match between these two coaches that was foiled on one side by a false start penalty and a missed field goal and on the other by an unfortunate fumble just as South Carolina’s fatigue began to show.
If nothing else these two drives show the quality of our coaching staff and their knowledge of the game. Both teams were well coached, and played remarkably well during both series. If you review the game and what each side was evidently trying to do, you’ll realize that in Coaches Malzahn, Lashlee and Johnson we have three of the best minds in the game preparing our players.
Good thing they’re all on the right side of the playing field this time.
All uncredited photos captured from the DVD recording of the 2010 game by XOS Digital and TCG Productions.
Tags: Auburn Coaching Staff, Auburn Football, Cam Newton, Coach Ellis Johnson, Coach Gus Malzahn, Coach Rhett Lashlee, Darvin Adams, Emory Blake, Eric Smith, football strategy, game plan, Michael Dyer, Phillip Lutzenkirchen, playcalling, South Carolina football, Sullivan013, Track 'em Tigers