You recognize it only after it happens. The moment when something new arrives that changes your life forever. Up until that event occurs, you are confident, poised, clear thinking, at ease with the situation around you and completely secure with your world ordered just as it should be. Then in an instant everything turns upside down. The entire structure you’ve based your life upon collapses like a house of gilded cards and in panic you find yourself hiring Lane Kiffen as your Offensive Coordinator and saying things like:
“The players have responded to him very well. New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas to do some things offensively that would enhance our chances of being successful. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with him.” Nick Saban, commenting on hiring Lane Kiffen, 2014 SEC Media Days
I’m wondering if it’s time to pass that title of Gamechanger to a younger, more talented coach whose potential influence on the sport may well prove to be greater than what Nick Saban has achieved. Over the last seven years, Nick Saban has established an enduring record of dominating teams and performance on the national level at Alabama, earning top rankings and being competitive in the national title race every year since 2008, winning that prize no less than three times. In all respects it is an unprecedented run of success for any coach or program in the entire history of the sport. But that legacy is now in real danger of being overshadowed and eclipsed by Gus Malzahn and his remarkable creation known collectively as the Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH) offense.
“The rest is just the same, isn’t it?”
In the glittering court of media opinion, that torch may have already passed. The results of the last Iron Bowl and Auburn’s astonishing 2013 rise from the basement to the BCS title game is the stuff of legend and the ensuing media blitz has catapulted both Auburn and Gus Malzahn into the national spotlight. But flowing just beneath the surface of media driven hyperbole and extravagant headlines is a sea change going on at a more fundamental level. While “The Process” at Alabama has been given lip service tribute by coaches across the country, it is actually elements of Gus Malzahn’s offense that are being adopted at all levels of football. While this is especially evident at the high school and collegiate level, the influence of Gus Malzahn has been felt even in the ultra conservative NFL, where the ‘Wildcat’ formation and zone read plays have achieved remarkably common usage among many teams, along with an uptick in the pace of the game.
The zone read play and ensuing options off of it, both running and passing the ball has seemingly taken the NFL by storm, including but not originating with Cam Newton’s arrival as a gifted rookie in 2011. By the 2013 season playoffs, two of the four teams playing in the NFL Conference Championship games were running versions of the zone read as a fundamental part of their offense, with blocking and option schemes hauntingly similar to Auburn’s offense from 2009 to 2011 and 2013.
Perhaps the best illustration of what Gus Malzahn’s offense can do, and a glimpse of the tremendous potential it has to impact the way football is played in the future is the last scoring drive of the Iron Bowl, which culminated in a play that shocked both the Crimson Tide defense and coaching staff along with the entire viewing audience.
Photo by Albert Cesarefirstname.lastname@example.org
“On the page it looked nothing. The play was simple, almost comic. Just a zone read run option at pace – standard formation and blocking – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – the ball, a single pass, hanging there unwavering, till a receiver caught it and sweetened it into a score of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was an offense I’d never seen. Filled with such scoring, such incredible scoring, it had me trembling.”
In the post game hype and sensation, Nick Marshall’s touchdown pass to Sammy Coates may have been marginalized by the unbelievable Kick Six that followed, but if you look at what happened when Auburn got the ball back with just 2:32 left on the game clock, you’ll discover some insight into how Gus’s offense leveraged the Tide defense, their tendencies and why it may be what most influences the future of the sport going forward. He played Nick at his best in the biggest game of the season, and on this drive displayed a superior understanding of what was happening on the field.
The coaching chess match starts with two and a half minutes left on the clock, Auburn has just blocked a field goal attempt, receives the ball over on downs, and is on their own 35 yard line trailing by a touchdown.
With 2:32 remaining on the clock, 1st and 10 at Auburn 35, Gus shows a normal shotgun formation with Mason to the left of Marshall, and Uzomah in motion, stopping in a power set left. Marshall takes the ball and executes an inside zone read to the right side, handing off to Mason for 7 yards. Immediately, Auburn players race back to the line for an identical set, this time without Uzomah in motion, with the same exact play, and inside zone read to the right which only gains one yard to the Auburn 43 yardline, 3rd and 2 to go.
At this point, Auburn lines up at pace, then hastily sends in two substitutions -Corey Grant as a second running back (with Sammie Coates coming off from the edge) and Shon Coleman at Right Tackle – Nick Saban tries to match the call, but has to call a timeout. Mentioned in the TV broadcast is OLB Adrian Hubbard being late on the substitution which caused Saban to burn a timeout. The film shows Nick blowing a gasket over the mixup. Which raises the question – why?
The reason can be found in the choice of Adrian Hubbard as one of the substitutions – the 6’6″ OLB had six tackles for the Tide that game – four solo and two for loss, including a sack, the best run-stop performance of any Alabama defender in the entire game. By that choice and the other players sent in, it is obvious Saban is thinking to reinforce his run-stop capability on the edge of the line of scrimmage. With an additional speed back like Grant in the game, it is a logical choice, a factor obviously not lost on Malzahn or Lashlee as the exceptional play called at the end of the drive will show.
After the timeout, the clock stands at 1:43. Mason is back in at running back and Grant goes in motion presnap to the left in the speed sweep option. Coleman stays on the field at RT. Mason sets behind and to the left of Marshall and takes the hand off inside to the right for five quick yards and a first down at the Auburn 48 yard line. Since it is a first down, Auburn does not go at pace and lines up with the Mason back to the right of the quarterback. Auburn substitutes Prosch as the second running back, who lead blocks for Nick Marshall for the remainder of the series, again selling the QB keeper on every hand off to Mason.
This time however, the inside zone read is to the left and Mason scoots forward five more yards, giving Auburn a 2nd and 5 at the Alabama 47. Auburn players go at pace to the line in the same set, with Mason to the left of Marshall. The call is yet another inside zone read to the right side, and Mason pushes forward 3 yards to the Alabama 44 yard line, giving Auburn a 3rd and 2. Auburn players are up again at pace, and are at the line of scrimmage in an identical set with Mason to the left of Marshall. The call is the same – inside zone read to the right for 5 yards and another first down at the Alabama 39 yard line. If you notice, at the end of each play, Nick is motioning pace to the sidelines – it is a question, evidently verified off screen. The communication and coordination between field and sideline are a marked feature of Gus’s system.
As well coached as Alabama is, frustration seems to be growing on the Alabama side of the line and field. Auburn has run six straight plays using the inside zone read and except for a single gain of one yard, has blown the defensive line off the ball for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, never running a single play outside of the tackle box. Both Kirby Smart and Nick Saban know a changeup is coming, and with the way that Nick Marshall, Mason and Corey Grant have burned them, are obviously anticipating it as a run to daylight option play off the zone read and have their defense set to prevent it. With a first down inside the 40 and the clock winding down under a minute, this will certainly be the series in which it will happen.
Sure enough, Malzahn and Lashlee don’t disappoint. In yet another inside zone read to the right, for the first time in the drive Nick Marshall keeps the ball and races to the sideline, out-stepping the defensive end who bit on the inside run once again and who now is sprawled helplessly on an island in his wake. Prosch is sealing the middle linebackers out of the play, again making the run seem plausible. Marshall watches both remaining defenders on the outside closely, holding the ball tucked in his left hand on what looks like an obvious run. As the two defenders bite down and set to contain him, he quickly switches the ball to his right hand and lofts a perfectly timed pass a yard before he would cross the line of scrimmage to a wide open Sammie Coates who has nothing but open field between him and the goal line.
The play and the setup are classic Gus Malzahn. The tendencies of the Alabama defense were identified, noted, and leveraged until a weakness found and then deftly exploited. In setting their defensive package to close the outside runs that had scorched them all day, Alabama left their down linemen and linebackers shorthanded to adequately defend the inside run for most of the drive, which Auburn exploited with brutal efficiency on this drive, pushing pace on a tired Alabama defense and steadily gaining field position. It is interesting to watch Nick Saban’s defensive package react to this both on a play by play basis and the composition of the containment package he tried to field when Grant was sent in for Coates. He is obviously taking the bait quite well, helping to set up the option play for what proved to be the climax of the drive.
One further item on the Auburn field-sideline communication – note what Nick Marshall does immediately after Coates catches the ball on the game film, which is the entire reason I wrote this piece. The TV coverage only shows a glimpse of it on the last slow motion replay, but it is truly remarkable and enlightening. This is a quarterback who has just thrown a game-tying touchdown in the last minute of the biggest match of the year. But what is he doing just two footsteps after throwing the ball, even before the play has scored? Celebrating watching his receiver run to the end zone to tie the game?
No, that comes later. The moment after the ball is caught, Marshall is already looking back at the sideline to see if there is a signal to go for two or not. This is why I think Gus had this exact sequence already in the game plan and had communicated this entire series to his offense long before that last play was called. This series was NOT called on the spot, but planned well beforehand, in specific detail and executed by the players to perfection.
The training, discipline, and exact planning required for such a series speaks to a level of orchestration that I haven’t seen often at any level of play, or from many previous Auburn coaching staffs. This is Lombardi or Landry level stuff of genius, and not just in terms of comprehension and conception, but training his staff, assistants, starters and backups to drill this type of game play to perfection and perform it at the highest level.
This, I believe, is why Nick Saban chose to try such a long field goal in the end. With his current offense failing spectacularly (6 of their last 7 drives ended in no points) and his defense gassed and outplayed late in the game, there was little else for him to do but try to kick his way out of a game which was rapidly spinning out of control. The “Process” was no longer working, and Gus had his number.
One wonders if Nick Saban’s legacy will survive Malzahn’s rise, or if it will be lost in the changes in the game that will inevitably come from such skilled innovative game planning and adept play calling. With the loss to Oklahoma who ran through, over and around this same defense in much the same way, Saban’s standard practice of fielding a tough run defense, crushing pass rush and conservative offense will likely need to change too. If this change means placing the entirety of his offense is in the hands of the likes of Lane Kiffen, with that man’s legacy of failure it must surely be a sign of desperation.
Which raises yet another question – In the future, who will football fans remember most, The Process and the movie “Gamechanger” or The HUNH offense and Gus Malzahn’s playbook?
“But the game plan showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down plays already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And such plays, scoring as no game plan has ever scored. Displace one formation and there would be diminishment. Displace one block and the structure would fall.”
“I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes – at an absolute beauty.”
Saban: Malzahn! It was good of you to come!
Malzahn: How could I not?
Saban: How… Did my work please you?
Malzahn: [hesitantly] I never knew that offense like that was possible!
Sabani: [uncertainly] You flatter me.
Malzahn: No, no! One sees such plays, and what can one say but… “Kiffen”
Movie photos from Amadeus courtesy of Warner Home Video