Squeezing Even More Out of the Gus Bus
snake·bit (see also snake·bit·ten) adjective – Experiencing a period of misfortune or inability to succeed
We all saw the incredible effect and potential of the Gus Bus HUNH offense on the defenses of the Southeastern Conference last year. Auburn transformed from an unremarkable and misfiring offensive scheme in 2012 into one of the most potent and dynamic forces on the gridiron in 2013 with many of the same personnel they had the year before.
The Tigers went from 0-8 and averaging 10 points per game in conference play to 8-1 and scoring over 38 points per SEC game. Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee took a team averaging just 235 yards per conference game in 2012 and transformed it into a inexorable juggernant grinding out a whopping 485 yards per game in the span of just 8 months.
That translates to a 100% increase in yards gained and an unbelievable 280% improvement in scoring during SEC games.
Even six months after the fact, those numbers still astonish me, and I have to pinch myself from time to time to bring my thoughts back to earth. It is incredibly difficult to overlook those numbers and see the downside of what happened last year. Like every other Auburn fan as the 2013 season unfolded, I increasingly saw the world through Orange and Blue lenses as each towering obstacle was overcome by this Phoenix-like rebirth of the Auburn offensive.Sometimes success on that scale can mask some troubling flaws that will plague a team even through the wistful euphoria of a championship run.
So what about the times when the Gus Bus WASN’T racing up and down the field, mowing over SEC defenses, leaving star defensive ends on islands and linebackers lying on the turf like so much roadkill in it’s wake? What stopped the Gus Bus when it struggled to gain first downs? Can we draw any conclusions from the drives that DIDN’T result in jubilant end zone celebrations that seemed so common by the end of last year (and so infrequent the year before)? Are there any improvements the Gus Bus can employ this year to further the meteoric rise of 2013 into the top of the game in 2014?
Answers to these and other questions after the jump.
When measuring Tigers, extreme care must be taken for accuracy.
By my count, in the 14 games last year, there were 334 Auburn first downs, good enough for third in the SEC, with 25 of those coming in the BCS Championship game – more than any other team made against FSU last year, and the second worst total that a Jimbo Fisher-coached team/defense has ever allowed. Additionally in terms of big plays, Auburn owns the conference in nearly every category over 20 yards, both passing and running the ball.
In third down conversions, Auburn was fourth in the SEC last year and 24th nationally, with a highly respectable 46.52% rate on conversions in the field. However, it wasn’t nearly as dominating as one would expect of an SEC champion, especially with how porous our defense was last year, and when I looked a bit closer, especially in key game situations I found some disturbing trends.
For this analysis I looked at every single drive that did not result in a touchdown. I excluded last possession kneel downs at the ends of halves and games, however, I did include drives that ended in a field goal or attempted field goal on fourth down, as that meant that the previous 3rd down was unsuccessful. I also felt compelled to include the “Miracle in Jordan Hare” drive, as the 3rd down prior to the Immaculate Deflection would have been a drive killing sack in anything but that particular game situation.
My total count was 99 drives over 14 games, with a near even split between pass-related (53 incompletions, sacks or interceptions) and run-related reasons for the drive to end (46 non-sack loss of yardage, runs short of a 1st down, fumbles, etc.). While that appeared on the surface as being pretty even, well within the standard deviation of expectation, when I drilled down a little more, the distribution began to change.
I began by eliminating any completed pass or positive yardage run that was short of a first down. Since many of the short swing passes are behind the line of scrimmage, I felt that they could be excluded as those were probably due to missed blocks or defensive adjustments and not strictly a consistent performance related issue. The result of those exclusions left 86 failed drives. I then removed the three out-of-conference games over Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina. Except for the early game with Arkansas state, the starters were on the bench early with a substantial lead before any drives failed. I also excluded any drive that ended in a kneel down either at the half or in an Auburn victory.
That left 68 failed drives in 11 games or an average of six drives per game. When those are considered, the pass-related ending of those drives was 47, nearly twice the rate of run-related failures. The incompletion rate figured prominently – 35 of the total, or just over half. In certain games, those figures were much worse. In both the close season opener against Washington State and the rain-soaked disaster at Baton Rouge there were ten failed drives with incompletions responsible for six in each game. There were also ten failed drives in the BCS Championship game, with incompletions accounting for seven non-scoring drives, including five of the six between the last score midway into the second quarter and the two late 4th quarter scores that left Auburn clinging to only a four point lead in the final two minutes. The other failed drive in that mid-game stretch ended with an interception, making the total eight out of ten failed drives in the championship game due to miscues in the passing game.
Little wonder that improving passing efficiency was primary in everything Coach Malzahn and Coach Lashlee spoke about throughout the Spring drills. It was the defining factor in the 2013 season opener and the only two losses last season. When Coach Lashlee said that Auburn could have ‘named our score’ in the BCS Championship, this is surely what he was alluding to. The national and local media both rolled their eyes at the idea and treated it as mere sour grapes, but when you look at each of the Auburn drives in BCS Championship game and the third down plays in those stalled drives, he is absolutely correct. Just a single completion in lieu of either of the two field goal kicks might have tipped the balance and made the last minute FSU drive immaterial.
The focus for Auburn this fall will now be on the passing game, both for efficiency and potency. If it is anything like what this coaching staff achieved on the ground last year, SEC teams will learn to fear the Tiger air attack in addition to the devastatingly efficient ground campaign.
NOTE: Claire Chenault’s famous Flying Tigers (1st American Volunteer Group) is my chosen meme for the 2014 Auburn Tigers. In addition to the excellent imagery and logos, the unit later became the core of the US 14th Air Force with General Chenault in command. That was just too much of a coincidence to miss for the ’14 season. I plan to call it The Year of the Flying Tigers. War Eagle.