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Opponent Offense Preview: Auburn

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Auburn scores points. Find out how.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Auburn vs Central Florida Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Week 0 came and went, and while the Huskies didn’t play we got to see an ex-Husky set a school record for his new team. With appetites and whistles sufficiently whetted, we march on to Week 1.

Even though we all have to suffer through work/school/life this week until we get to the...ahem...good games, featuring Top-25 opponents and passion filled on campus atmospheres neutral site stadiums, fear not because the Dawgs hit the field in just four days.

Time to shake off the cobwebs and talk football. And that means examining the offense for Washington’s Week 1 opponent - the Auburn Tigers.

The basics

Auburn’s offense is HC Gus Malzahn’s baby. It’s recognizable, and in today’s mess of fast-paced spread offenses, his actually stands out. That is likely because it has its roots in the Wing-T and at times looks just like that, except run out of the shotgun. Here’s an example:

That type of power running (notice the two pulling guards?) is the beating heart of the offense, but has not gone without its changes in recent years. The primary reasons for that are:

1) Offensive Coordinator Chip Lindsey: Remember him? Husky fans should recognize this name as he was the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss when Washington faced them in their 2015 bowl game. The Southern Miss offense put up 31 points and was dangerous all day. He also served as OC at Arizona State in 2016.

2) Quarterback Jarrett Stidham: There’s more on him below, but his transfer from Baylor finally gave Auburn a true QB with a live arm to complement the power run game.

Between Lindsey’s play calling and Stidham’s skill set, Auburn has added a vertical pass game and WR screen elements to their offense. Their relationship in Year One produced strong results: Auburn became just the eighth SEC team all-time to rush and pass for 3,000 yards in a season, and set a school record for points scored. Not to mention Stidham was All-SEC and only the second Auburn QB in history to pass for 3,000 yards.

Where Husky fans will see some similarities to their own offense is in the pre-snap motion and “eye candy” of the offense. Similar to Petersen’s philosophy, they want to get defenders into bad positions to create mismatches by moving players around and switching formations just before the snap. They combine this with tempo to get defenders keying on the wrong player and making the wrong read.

Here’s a closer look how Auburn likes to win on offense:

Through the air

Auburn is experiencing stability at QB for the first time in a handful of years. By that I mean, Jarrett Stidham enters this year as a starter after starting last year. This is the first time since 2014 that has been the case, and also the offense’s second year under OC Chip Lindsey. So with that in mind, he is understandably getting a lot of attention after posting good numbers in 2017:

  • 3,158 yards
  • 66% completion (246/370)
  • 18:6 TD:INT ratio

The chart below paints a more complete picture of his passing acumen:

QB Jarrett Stidham heat map

What this tells you is the Auburn offense loves to throw WR screens to their supremely big and athletic receiver corps. They also are a threat vertically. That said, the WR corps is a little banged up as they lost Will Hastings and Eli Stove, two of their top five targets, to ACLs in spring.

But this is a deep group, with talents like these (2017 production):

  • Ryan Davis: 815 yards, 5 TDs
  • Darius Slayton: 5 TDs, 22.2 yards per catch
  • Nate Craig-Myers: 3 TDs, 17.8 yards per catch

Slayton at 6’2” is the main deep threat and will demand a lot of attention, while Davis at only 5’9” is the type of player who turns a short gain into a long TD. Most impressive is how willing they are as blockers, using their size and athleticism to spring big gains in the screen game. They also have a trio of 4-star freshmen earning high praise in camp and who may feature this Saturday.

Darius Slayton stretches for the catch.

Turning our attention back to Stidham, he has decent legs and is not shy when it comes to lowering his 6-3 215 pound frame into a defender. He was especially dangerous against Alabama rushing 12 times for 51 yards and a TD, and throughout the season averaged 5.4 yards per non-sack attempt.

However, the offensive line had its problems last year protecting Stidham, ranking 94th in adjusted sack rate. Not all of this was their fault as the Auburn QB not only showed some happy feet but also an unwillingness to get rid of the ball when defenses confused him. Both the LT and RT have departed, and when the line gave up sacks like that it’s hard to fully know whether this is a good thing or bad thing. The replacement at LT will be ultra-athletic Nigerian JR Prince Tega Wanogho. He’s been taking first-team reps since the start of spring camp but is still fairly new to the position and could be vulnerable. Also important to point out that he’s not the only Nigerian on the OL, with Prince Micheal Sammons also on the roster.

So, for those keeping score at home, the tally of Nigerian Princes on each roster is Auburn: 2, Washington: 0. Do with that what you will.

Taking over at RT will be former UMass Minuteman Jack Driscoll who transferred to Auburn for his final two years of eligibility. He has 20 starts under his belt including five against SEC opponents, and had to beat out a 5-star redshirt freshman to get the starting nod. I’ll get to the rest of the OL later, but right now the tackle positions are more stable than most Auburn fans might have thought going into the season. They mostly employ a zone blocking scheme similar to Penn State (joy!).

On the ground

Last year the Tigers ranked 16th in rushing S&P+ (if you don’t understand the rating system, here is a primer, but in a nutshell it’s more representative than the raw numbers), and 8th on standard downs. They also ranked fifth in power success rate, which is how often they got the needed yardage on third or fourth down and less than two yards to go. The answer is a scary 80%: they get push up front and have running backs who can get the tough yards. Now, how much losing both 2017 starting RBs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway affects the rushing remains to be seen. However, Gus Malzahn never seems to have issues getting a rushing attack going and this year does not feel any different.

Taking over as the primary back this season will be Kam Martin, last year’s third option. He performed well in place of the oft-injured Johnson and Pettway and ended the season with 453 yards and 2 TDs and over 6 yards per carry. Backing him up is redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow, who the coaches love because of his size (6-0, 216 pounds) and willingness to pass block. Martin is not as adept in pass blocking which held him back in prior seasons, but all indications are that he’s worked hard on that skill in an effort to stay on the field longer.

Kam Martin

Moving to the interior of the OL, this is where things get more solidified. LG will be Marquel Harrell who started off and on last year. Center will be new starter Kaleb Kim, who is playing for the injured Nick Brahms. He’s done enough to solidify himself there and hold off the current starter at RG, Mike Horton, who started seven games last year and will remain at RG.

Perhaps the biggest improvement on the OL will come on the coaching front. After Herb Hand left for Texas, Auburn went back to former OL Coach J.B. Grimes, which has fans thrilled. After being disappointed with the OL play under Coach Hand, they are hoping Grimes can bring them back to the level they are accustomed to.

This offensive line has a lot of potential if things come together and they gel. But if last year is any indication, they can be prone to breakdowns. We’ll see how much affect Coach Grimes has.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t the most efficient offense out there, but in true SEC fashion, they have high-level athletes everywhere, and they tell them to just go and ball. That could be very dangerous for a UW defense that, until proven otherwise, struggles on the edges against the big and physical offenses. I like our secondary to blow up the sideline WR screens, but as we saw against Penn State, they can still be beaten, especially with a QB who can buy time with his legs.

Auburn will likely try to beat Washington with quick passes and hope their athletic receivers can make plays in space. The Husky DBs will have to tackle and swarm to the ball. I also expect Auburn to move the pocket and use Stidham’s legs like Penn State with McSorley. They’re replacing some experience on the OL and might try to mitigate that with more RPOs and a mobile pocket.

Defending the run will be a chore. I anticipate Auburn will look at the Stanford game and how the interior of their OL balanced double-teaming Washington’s DL vs. climbing to the second level to take on a linebacker. They’ll also utilize players like H-back Chandler Cox as an extra blocker. They don’t throw to their TEs basically ever, so they’ll be on the field primarily to block.

Auburn is prone to the occasional dud, but has an offense built to weather the rough patches and win with explosive plays.

Husky fans, where do you think Washington’s defense has the most success? Where will they struggle? Auburn fans, tell me how wrong I am in the comments below!