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Squeezing Even More Out of the Gus Bus

By on June 25th, 2014 in Football 10 Comments »

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.



  1. KungFuPanda9 KungFuPanda9 says:

    Great picture of a boa constrictor squeezing the bus. And the Flying Tigers logo with V is awesome.

    Your analysis is very detailed. I think most of us here knew in our hearts that an improvement in the passing game was critical. I am encouraged by what I saw from the receivers during the A day game.

    Nick is better at crossing routes over the middle. And that will come in handy for Uzomah. Duke Williams looked really good, albeit against the 2s, and should present problems for any defense. Coates has grown into a serious physical force as well.

    Looking forward to the Year of the Flying Tigers.

  2. DJ Bryant says:

    For the record, Gen. Chenault was indeed a flying tiger, of the LSU Bengal breed. War Eagle

  3. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Those stats back up the one criticism of the Malzhan offense that may actually be true. It’s said that the offense generates big plays, but is only average moving the chains. Of course, when you’re having to break in a new starting quarterback every season, I’d imagine consistency is hard to come by, especially early on. Should be interesting to see a second year quarterback in this system this fall!

    …..Meanwhile back in 2012, our previous coordinator tended to take Tre Mason out after any big run. Loeffler’s idea of offensive strategy was to sit two future NFL starters (Mason and Prosch) on the bench, in lieu of running Onterrio McCalebb into the boundary with no lead blockers.

    • SEC_Eric SEC_Eric says:

      Thank God Loeffler ball is long gone!

      Another good article Sullivan. Real food for thought. Loved the pictures. Keep’em coming!

  4. sparkey sparkey says:

    So, I’ll be slapped and called Amy. Marshall seems to have an issue with accuracy. Furthermore, had he been just a little more accurate with his arm are you telling me that Auburn’s offense would’ve been that much better?!?!! The Hell you say!

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      There are many reasons for incompletions, not simply the accuracy of the quarterback. It also relies on the number and quality of receivers, the type of plays called, and even the ratio of run-pass play selection in the game plan. It can even be influenced by the familiarization a team has with each other, both in game experience and practice time.

      All I’m saying is that one or two completions more at critical times in the BCS game would likely have made all the difference. Likewise, I believe this coaching staff and players know full well what worked and didn’t work last year and are actively correcting those deficiencies going forward.

      Far superior to what happened between 2011 and 2012.

      • sparkey sparkey says:

        I happen to agree completely with what the stats said. Yes, I agree there is more to completions that simply the quarterback’s accuracy. That said, it’s still one of the most important factors if not the most important factor when it comes to completions. I’ve said for a while now Nick’s biggest problem is his lack of touch. He has an arm there’s no doubt and he can burn you deep. However, he can’t seem to take the zip off the ball with consistency. He did improve on that somewhat but he always had an issue with it. I think many of the passes blamed on the receivers for dropping them (and I actually agree) were because the receiver had to go get the ball and change position. Louis seems able to catch a ball in stride or that gets to him and keeps him from having to come to the ball. However, if he has to move out of his route his ability to catch the ball consistently immediately drops.

        Lastly, I think everybody has forgotten Marcus Washington and Jaylon Denson. Denson is possibly the best run blocking receiver in the country and he catches what’s thrown his way usually. It was on an awful pass he tore his ACL in the LSU game. Look for Denson and Washington to both have breakout seasons along with Melvin Ray as so much attention will be given to Williams and Coates. I think this set of receivers can actually have someone open for every single play designed to go up in the air. It’s up to Nick and the receivers on what to do after that.

  5. sparkey sparkey says:

    Oh, and please do not mistake me for someone who doesn’t like the offense Gus is running. I love it. I think that we will see records broken with the offense coming this season. I was simply trying to remind people all I ever said about Marshall that bothered me was that he had accuracy issues and that eventually it would cost us a game. It did finally cost us a game, though I’m not saying he alone was to blame for losing to FSU of course. I’m with you though, a couple of completions on some key drives and Auburn won another championship and kept the SEC streak alive.

    • AubieCE AubieCE says:

      Sparkey, you are correct in that NM has accuracy issues, but to say it cost the FSU game, not so fast my friend.
      I know you said it was not all his fault but I don’t think any the loss was his, it was a team loss.
      Nick Mashall played like he did in every game, made some big plays, missed some passes.
      Ying with the Yang.
      You expect too much from a 1st year QB playing SEC ball straight out of the JC ranks.
      If you told me I had to place the FSU game in the “O”, “D” or Special Teams hands, I would have said
      Special Team especially on kickoffs.
      That FSU KO return was back breaking, I could not believe it happened.
      As well as the “D” played, letting FSU turn a 5 yd pass into a 50 yd pass was tough to flip the field was tough.
      I just do not agree NM passing cost the game.
      Now can NM improve his passing for 2015?
      We shall see, everything points to that.

      • sparkey sparkey says:

        Well, he did always give us what he gave every game. That’s my problem accuracy issues. Before Coates came on and after him we still lacked depth for people that could catch Marshall’s passes consistently. I’m simply saying you probably won’t win a national championship with a quarterback that has some problems with accuracy. That’s what I have thought and it turned out to be the case though we damned near proved that statement wrong. He has to fix his accuracy issues if we’re going to get through this schedule and make it as one of the top four at the end of the season. This schedule is one of the toughest you could have and a good bit of it is on the road. I’m hoping with everybody else that he has fixed those issues. If he has gotten more consistent than he was, I think we’re going to be winning another championship.