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The Exception

As an amateur statistician, exceptions bother me. There has to be a reason or a rationale for every single outlying figure. When you discover them, they usually lie annoyingly beyond the safe and secure standard deviation or the normal distribution. They poke up or down sharply from the smooth curve, menacing in their oddness.  They scrape against my secure theories and intrude into my clearly delineated graphs. However comfortable life would be if I just simply dismissed them outright, I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. And so they remain on the page, sharply critical of my analysis, defiantly different and demanding explanation and investigation.

In the last seven years, only one team that has had Gus Malzahn as a coach at the collegiate level has scored fewer than 33 points per game. No team of his has failed to gain six yards per play, or run fewer than 68 plays per game for an entire season, except one. Neither has any team failed to score a touchdown from the Red Zone less than two out of three tries, except one. Nor has any team failed to achieve a third down conversion rate of at least 40%, save one specific group of young men.

That team was the 2011 Auburn Tigers, the reigning BCS Champions of the previous year.

Not only was it Gus Malzahn’s least productive year while at Auburn, it was his worst year since he started coaching at the collegiate level, possibly even the worst in his career since he first implemented the HUNH offense. Auburn under-achieved in nearly every measurable statistic on offense from any other Gus Malzahn-coached team including his previous ‘worst year’ at Arkansas in 2006 where his offense was strangled by Houston Nutt’s interference.

The differences were evident from the very first game of the season. The visiting Utah State Aggies had given up nearly 35 points per game and over 6 yards per carry in 2010. Their head coach, Gary Anderson was so disgusted that he dismissed his defensive coordinator and took that role for himself in 2011 in addition to his head coaching duties. Yet the Auburn offense struggled mightily in the first half against the Aggies, gaining only 1 first down in the first twenty minutes of the game, and only 30 yards rushing in the first half. Barrett Trotter was sacked twice in a game in which Auburn scored 42 points, but only edged the Aggies by less than a touchdown, the difference being an electrifying kick return for a touchdown in the second quarter by a young freshman running back named Tre Mason.

On the surface, this was puzzling. How could a team that kept its coaching staff relatively intact for two years, having won every game the previous year while setting innumerable scoring, rushing and passing records start so poorly the third year? How could such a dynamic offensive scheme fall so flat in such a short time? By any reasonable expectation, the HUNH offense should have sailed through the 2011 season just as it had during the 2010 season.

What went wrong?

Sometimes, there can be too many baby steps

At least part of the answer can be found in a review of the roster and the recruiting classes preceeding 2011. The 2011 Auburn Tigers were a very young team across the board. 35 seniors had graduated in 2010. There were also three significant starting juniors that left. By the time of the first snap of the season against Utah State, the Offensive line looked like this:

Brandon Mosley – SR – 11 starts in 2010
Jared Cooper – SR(5yr) 0 previous starts (would start 6 before a season ending injury – Oct 15)
Reese Dismukes – FR 0 previous starts
John Sullen – JR – 1 start – in 2009 (would start in 9 games in 2011)
Chad Slade – FR 0 previous starts

The starting experience of the offensive line consisted of just 12 previous games, the lowest total in the nation. In contrast, the average in the SEC for that year was 68 starts with every other team well above 50. Auburn’s front line this year (2013) has 113 games experience. Where were all the experienced linemen in 2011? Where were the other 4th year seniors and 3rd year junior upperclassmen?

With the exception of AJ Greene who was injured in the Clemson game in 2010, there was only one other senior lineman – Bobby Ingalls, a walk-on transfer who had never started before. The only other junior in John Sullen’s class was Donnie Riggins, another walk-on with very little game experience. There was also a single sophomore – Blake Burgess, who was the backup to Reese Dismukes at center. Every other lineman, walk-on or scholarship was a freshman.

Jared Cooper was one of only a handful of athletes still on the team from the 2007 recruiting class. Tommy Tuberville’s last highly criticized recruiting class of 2008 had only two offensive linemen and a long snapper. Of those three, only the long snapper Dax Dellenbach had an outstanding year in 2012,… for the FSU Seminoles, the team he transferred to in 2008 after leaving the Auburn program before every playing a single down. The other two individuals didn’t qualify and never made it to campus, although one (Jermaine Johnson) did later play for Miami, the other (Freddie Smooth) is currently serving time in Louisiana after admitting to accessory to 2nd degree murder. Gene Chizik’s first class of 2009 was also short on offensive line talent, targeting only two players – John Sullen and Andre Harris. Andre Harris left Auburn to play at the junior college level in 2010.

By 2010, the recruitment of offensive linemen was reaching the critical stage and Auburn signed no less than seven players, but sadly only two of which found a chance to start in 2011 – Chad Slade and JC transfer Brandon Moseley. Shon Coleman’s leukemia and Ed Christian’s back injury stories you all well know, but also under achieving were Roszell Gayden, Tunde Fayike and Eric Mack.

That was only the tip of the iceberg. Auburn had only 55% of the team returning from 2010, of which only 4 offensive players were starters the previous year – Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Emory Blake, Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. In contrast, for 2013 Auburn returns 73% of it’s letter men, about average across the SEC (between 70-72% every year). Other positions suffered as well. Auburn fielded a defensive front consisting entirely of sophomores, and a secondary that had only a single senior. And at quarterback, prior season playing time was all but non-existent. As the backup quarterback in 2010, Barrett Trotter completed a grand total of 6 passes out of 9 for 64 yards. Due to the number of close games in the championship run (seven games decided by eight or fewer points, three ending in a last minute score) Cam Newton rarely left the field of play except in non-SEC blowouts.

But mere inexperience at various positions going into the 2011 season doesn’t tell the entire story. It was a contributing factor to the potential achievement of the team, but experience alone doesn’t account for all of the issues that Auburn experienced that year. Injuries also began to take their toll, especially into the meat of the SEC schedule, and it hit Auburn at a particularly critical weakness – wide receiver. As the middle of the season approached, there were two clear leading wide receivers, Trovon Reed and Emory Blake. By October, both were nursing injuries and Auburn’s passing attack began to sputter, both from inadequate blocking from it’s line, but also from incompletions. A change in quarterbacks and receiver type began to improve completions, but not result in more yards.

There was a distinct change in Gus Malzahn’s game plan. The types of plays called changed dramatically from the opening few games. Gone were the bread and butter inside and outside zone reads of the 2010 season, and even the dynamic passing attack of 2009 was blunted extensively. The long distance strikes to the wide receivers were replaced by bubble screens and secondary receivers out of the backfield – Onterio McCalebb and Phillip Lutzenkirchen started to catch more and over the middle and in the flat as dump passes due to the inevitable pass rush and tight coverage by the better defenses that Auburn faced.

There was more. Gus began to also slow his offense considerably. The number of plays called per game steadily dropped as the season progressed. At Tulsa, Malzahn’s offense averaged above 78 plays per game, reaching his stated goal of 80 on many occasions. At Auburn for his first two years, he averaged 70 in 2009, and over 68 in 2010. But in 2011, that dropped to just 63 plays per game, and in the three biggest losses to LSU, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn averaged less than 54 plays per game. Over the first half of the season and the bowl game against Virginia, the Tigers averaged over 67 plays per game. In the remaining games of the season, starting against Florida and ending with Alabama, the 2011 team averaged less than 59 plays per game.

Clearly, all of these factors illustrate what fans saw week to week. As the season progressed, the completion percentage improved slightly, the pass protection for the quarterback worsened, and the running game ground to a shell of its former self. The young and under experienced Auburn line just couldn’t open any holes inside and when it tried to stem the pass rush of aggressive, blitzing defenses such as LSU, Georgia and Alabama, it all but collapesed. This was most apparent at Baton Rouge on October 22, 2011. The top defense in the SEC tore apart the Auburn pass coverage and logged six sacks for -56 yards and four other tackles for loss enroute to a 45-10 drumming. At one point Auburn reached midfield for a first down and ended up punting from their own 30 in the same possession (after suffering two successive sacks for -25 yards).

How bad was the problem? Take a look at the post game commentary after losing to LSU that year

“LSU pass rushers several times went untouched toward Moseley. The protection became so bad that Auburn started keeping Onterio McCalebb in the backfield to help out on third downs. That meant Auburn’s most effective offensive player against LSU was in no position to touch the ball on the most critical down.”

That woeful offensive production only continued against the remaining ranked opponents left on the schedule. In addition to the LSU loss, Auburn suffered blowout losses in both annual rivalry games against Georgia and Alabama. On the scorecard of Gus Malzahn’s career, those three games and the Utah State opener of 2011 represent his four worst statistical games in seven years of coaching at the collegiate level in the three prominent areas in which he grades himself – Running plays called, plays per game and yards per carry.

Gusrush2

In no other season in Gus Malzahn’s career has he ever had four such games. In fact, these are the only four in his career in which less than 35 running plays were called AND his team ran the ball for less than 2.6 yards per carry. Nor has he ever had averaged so few running plays called in any other four games among all his seasons coaching in the NCAA since he was first hired by Houston Nutt in 2006.

Even though Auburn would finish the regular season 7-5, and notch a victory in the Chik-fil-A bowl, the experience and depth issue on the offensive line only worsened. By 2012, the only two remaining seniors on the offensive line were gone, and so was Gus Malzahn. He was at least astute enough to see the writing on the wall, which may have contributed to his decision to take a half a million dollar pay cut to be a head coach at Arkansas State rather than remain an assistant at Auburn.

It seems that Gus doesn’t like exceptions any more than I do.

 

13 Comments

  1. wde1988 wde1988 says:

    I know this is speculation and you are focusing on measurable statistics but you didn’t cover what happened off the field. Do you think those events had something to do with the lack of production?

    For me your piece illuminates the difficulties in putting together a successful team and season. And there is a vast minefield that a program must go through to get to the SEC championsip much less to the national championship.

    WDE

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      The problem with including off the field issues is the lack of true reliable information. All I have to go on is what is written in the media. Letting my understanding of the world of Auburn football rest on the dubious quality of what Scarbinsky or Finebaum spew seems to me like a recipe for disaster. Their motivation for publishing such tripe is not truth, but sensation and a daily deadline that has to be met whether they have anything important to say or not.

      That being said, even if everything the Birmingham Bozos wrote was true (Ha! I can’t even write that with straight face) none of those off the field issues strapped on pads, wore cleats or put knuckles on turf. The play of the game on the field is the only real measure of any team.

  2. AUcideng42 AUcideng42 says:

    As disappointing as the robbery incident was, I don’t think it had much impact on the season (even if it did foreshadow some of the issues with Mike Dyer).

    What caused the 8-win season was losing 55% of starters (80% of O-line) and not having a capable QB to step in. Given that, I loved the fight that team had in the first half of the season. And even in the second half it wasn’t like the team was lost/giving up like it was in 2012.

  3. KoolBell KoolBell says:

    I agree that a lot of the problems along the offensive line came from the Tubberville era, and the unknown entity of Gene Chizik’s first class, but I take exception to this: “also under achieving were Roszell Gayden, Tunde Fayike and Eric Mack.”

    First Tunde Fariyike was rated a two star, and barely that. His high school was located in a remote area in Georgia, that received very little media attention. The soon to be Dr. Fariyike was seen as a very intelligent kid who would serve as an excellent back up for Reese Dismukes at center. Where he trained his first two seasons on the Plains. If anything Tunde excelled considering what he went thru in his time at Auburn.

    Eric Mack was seen as a big talent and was likely going to compete for starting time until he witnessed the apartment killings and being shot himself. Mentally, young Mr. Mack has had a difficult time since then.

    This anomaly you have uncovered existed because several factors that you discussed. You are absolutely spot on with every one of these, except where I stated my disagreement. I believe that this is why Gus has so many offensive linemen on scholarship now.

    It was apparent at the time that Gus was being told to slow down the offense. Acid, and I both stated so on these very pages. If you think we were frustrated at those particular turn of events, imagine how Gus felt. After already leaving one SEC school because the head man kept “fiddling” with his offense, he was in the same position immediately following two consecutive years of setting offensive records at AU, and having a major hand in winning the BCS crown.

    Your work here is fantastic. I love being able to have these discussions.

    WAR EAGLE!

  4. LeeBee says:

    The problem was, the player’s hearts were not in it. Gus had to run an offense accordingly. The bad discipline under chizick was the undercurrent. The “writing on the wall” was inscribed by the head coach, not the players. Gus was very smart to move on. Being able to sleep at night is a very underrated component of any job.

  5. Tim says:

    Excellent article, one of the better ones I’ve read here.

    I agree with the comments about Tunde Fariyike; he did not underperform. Tunde’s goal was to go to medical school first and play football second. I don’t remember him being a highly rated recruit. I’m proud of him and would like to meet him some day.

  6. mikeautiger says:

    As I stated back then, being a chaplain of hospice, I do think the many tragic deaths in and around the program played a major role on their emotional state and was one underlying cause for there loss of fight and ability to play good football.

  7. sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

    Let me be clear. I have tremendous respect for both scholarship and non-scholarship athletes in all collegiate sports. I met several when I was at Auburn and every one of them put in many grueling hours of training and conditioning with little hope of competing in front of crowds of the size that Jordan Hare could hold.

    Consequently, I am very hesitant to criticize any player for any miscues on the field, or their quality of play. In fact, I make it a point in my articles to NOT place personal blame on any one player. They give too much to our program for me to detract.

    My comments on Tunde Fariyike were not personal, nor a judgement on him as a person (far from it, I believe he is the epitome of a true ‘scholar athlete’), but merely that he was not chosen to start in 2011, and instead spent most of his time on special teams. There wasn’t much rotation of starters that I could see in reviewing the games from that season.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. War Eagle

  8. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Having lots of youth on the lines is poison in the SEC. Watch how Tennessee does this year….

    …..I’ll have to take up for Barrett Trotter, too. I thought he started out pretty well, but just took too many hits, again, that line… Trotter was fast, with a decent arm and good football smarts. He was not a Rothlisburger/Freddie Kitchens type who could take a pounding and shake it off. Trotter was struggling against Florida, but they’ve had a pretty good D under Will Muschamp. I was shocked when they benched him for Clint Moseley in the second half. Auburn was going to win that game anyway, since Florida forgot how to field punts.

    …..The season (and program) went into a tailspin the next week, as Moseley got his first start, with almost no experience in Baton Rouge against number one LSU. With a shaky line. Ouch.

    • KungFuPanda9 KungFuPanda9 says:

      Trotter redeemed himself in the bowl game. He led the Tigers to a 43 – 24 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers. After that game, hopes were high for the next season. But the tailspin of new coordinators was unforeseen.

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