When Joe Moorhead first arrived at Penn State in 2016 after a nice four-year run at Fordham at the FCS level, the big breakthrough he brought to the Lions was in the vertical passing game. Penn State loved going deep early and often with sophomore QB Trace McSorley throwing to Chris Godwin in particular and the Big 10 wasn’t prepared for the shock of it. When he left for the 2018 season to take the HC vacancy at Mississippi State left by Dan Mullen, he did not find a squad with the personnel to shock the SEC with a barrage of deep shots. What he did find was a talented RB room and a QB in Nick Fitzgerald on track to finish as the leading rusher for his position in SEC history.
Amongst the many stout defenses on the schedule from the SEC West were the Auburn Tigers, who have been on a defensive tear over the same period since Gus Malzahn hired Kevin Steele to coordinate the unit. In year one (2016) they finished 16th in defensive S&P+, then third in 2017 and sixth in 2018. Beyond simply fielding excellent players, Steele focused on simplifying the playbook in a fashion similar to the Pat Narduzzi Spartans. The Tigers have focused on playing aggressive, base defense and forcing opponents to beat them down the field.
Round one of this matchup proved to be a contest of Moorhead trying to work out ways to create rushing lanes against that defense without the aid of a McSorley/Godwin pressure release valve. Interestingly, he had tremendous success.
Strength on strength
Auburn has a really stout defensive front, for two overlapping reasons. The first is the talent level of their defensive linemen. The state of Alabama produces a fair number of talented, big DL and of course Auburn is less than two hours from Atlanta which does the same. Auburn fielded a rotation of about six or seven DL across their four-man front against Mississippi State, led by five-star DT Derrick Brown (Atlanta suburb) and four-star DE/DT Marlon Davidson (small town Alabama).
Their defensive backfield is often less heralded and indeed the unit that took the field against the Bulldogs featured three-star recruits at middle linebacker, strong safety, and free safety. The Auburn base defense is generally a press-quarters strategy that looks to match up in coverage on a team’s three WRs with a trio of good cornerbacks and then try to force the ball inside where the safeties are playing downhill on the hash marks and their well-coached LBs are waiting.
For instance against LSU playing a “nub trips” formation:
The cornerback on bottom is left to his lonesome in man coverage, the nickel (next Auburn DB up from the bottom) is playing outside-shade on his assignment, and then the middle linebacker is splitting the difference between his run gap and the third receiver while the safety helps him over the top. Both safeties are within 10 yards and often sneak up to eight or so. Because the Tigers defer some coverage to their corners and nickel the safeties can play fairly aggressively against the run once they’ve guaranteed help inside in coverage.
Auburn doesn’t blitz very often but rely on their DL to get pressure and the close proximity of the safeties allows the LBs to play pretty fast, putting extra pressure on the OL to block guys like Brown before those backers fly in and wreck the play. In that regard they’re similar to the Spartans but they are less aggressive with their nickel against the run.
The strength of the 2018 Mississippi State offense was the revolving trio of QB Nick Fitzgerald, TE/FB Farrod Green (sometimes Justin Johnson), and RB Aeris Williams-or-Kylin Hill. Fitzgerald had 196 carries for 1299 yards on the year at 6.6 ypc with 13 TDs, Williams and Hill combined for 202 carries and 1258 yards at 6.2 ypc with seven more TDs. The TEs focused largely on blocking although Justin Johnson got involved on some RPOs and in the passing game from time to time.
The focal point of the game here was whether Moorhead could find leverage for his two-headed option run game to find places to punch through against Auburn’s notoriously sound and stout front.
Opening maneuvers: Moorhead goes around the Maginot line
Obviously the plan for Moorhead and the Bulldogs wasn’t just to trot out conventional formations and try to mash their heads up against the Tiger fronts harder than other opponents had done. They looked to leverage the abilities of their QB as a passer, humble as they might be, to try and spread out and confuse the Tigers.
Early on they had some success with this approach:
They start in a 3x1 set with the TE flexed out and have the RB swing wide while Fitzgerald reads the middle linebacker to see if he chases the RB and abandons his post in the box or stays home. The MLB abandons his post so Fitz opts for the QB draw.
Then another problem arises for the Tigers, the movement to a 4x1 set drew the attention of the free safety, who needs to help to the field to avoid getting outnumbered on deep throws (hypothetically). But now there’s only five defenders in the box for five blockers and six gaps.
Later that drive the Dogs started in 4x1 and came back to 3x1:
This time the Tigers motion back but get caught over compensating for the late adjustment whereas against the draw they weren’t ready to leave someone behind.
Interestingly enough, Auburn was playing a tite front on this snap. They mixed in the tite front pretty heavily in this game along with their normal 4-2 over and under fronts but they didn’t play by the tite front rules very well in this contest. With this play in particular, the DE is free to play the RB and force the ball inside because he has a DT inside of him in the B-gap, he does so. But the weak side linebacker lost track of his assignment and also chased the RB wide, and with the MLB playing the C-gap first and coming late in response to motion that left no one at all in the box to stop the QB run.
Auburn’s unsuccessful gambit
Super Bowl XLIX was an influential one for anti-spread defense because everyone got to watch defensive mastermind Bill Belichik try to solve the zone-read against the Seattle Seahawks. His solution was to play with double 3-techniques, double 9-tech OLB/DEs playing contain, and then send an ILB downhill through the A-gap to create a 46 defense after the snap.
The DE/OLBs would give the QB the read to handoff while clogging the B-gaps with 3-techniques and then an A-gap with an ILB would create 1-on-1 matchups across the line and blow up the zone blocking schemes. It worked out quite well, Lynch had a workmanlike 103 yards on 24 carries and Wilson 39 yards on three carries. With their zone game schemed up the Seahawks famously chose to pass rather than run in a crucial moment and handed the Patriots a win. Since then, this approach has been influential at the college level for teams trying to handle that scheme.
But there are three big problems with that approach. One is that the Patriots are well known for their culture, attention to detail, and emphasis on multiplicity and versatility. Their base defense is whatever it needs to be in order to stop your offense. What’s more, the Patriots committed to that front for the game, they didn’t mix it in along with a handful of other fronts that they had to stay option-sound in. Auburn broke against Steele’s normal KISS philosophy and they were punished with a number of occasions in this game where they missed assignments and gave away yardage.
Another problem is multiplicity on the offensive side, the Seahawks didn’t have as many ways to attack this front as Moorhead does.
Finally, there’s the problem that this front was designed to stop the inside/outside zone-read game of the Seahawks, not the power-read game.
You can see that Auburn is playing a more traditional 46 front with a nose in the A-gap rather than a blitzing LB and then the MLB as one of the 9-techniques. The MLB contains the RB sweep and then almost closes and tackles Fitzgerald as well, but not quite. The power game is trouble for this front, provided they don’t give up penetration on the backside, because they add a blocker who picks up the LB and then the defense has no one left for the QB.
The Tigers are playing man coverage, you almost have to or you risk getting badly outnumbered in the box with no one behind the five guys on the line. But the Dogs have the TE flexed out so there’s only one LB to react to where the play actually goes and no safety to help him clean up anything save for the deep man, who’s rendered useless playing that far back.
The Tigers would have been better off playing without a deep safety in this game, at least when they were in the 46 fronts. Nick Fitzgerald completed 9-17 passes in this game for 69 yards at 4.1 ypa with zero TDs and one INT, a third down crosser thrown to a safety playing LB in an Auburn dime package. He didn’t present a real threat in the passing game to consistently beat the Tigers’ man coverage defenders, not like he did to beat their LBs with his legs.
Eventually the Tigers did get desperate enough to go in that direction, but they still mucked up their assignments and their front was too word down so the upshot was that a short-yardage conversion with QB power turned into a finishing TD.
Nick Fitzgerald had 28 carries for 195 yards in this game at 7.0 ypc with two rushing TDs. That wasn’t a total anomaly for the SEC’s all-time leader in rushing yards at QB either but a fairly typical workload for him. When the QB is that involved in the run game, it changes all the calculus up front and allows the offense to manipulate which defenders fit where in the box if the defense insists on playing by normal rules.
Auburn had a Mississippi State-specific gameplay with their occasional utilization of the 46 defense, but they didn’t commit all in with it like they needed to in order to execute the plan. They didn’t make the 46 their main front for this game to make sure their defenders knew how to stop the various option looks in that specific defense and they didn’t bring up the deep safety to guarantee they didn’t get creased. When Virginia Tech famously shut down Ohio State back in 2014 it was with the 46 front backed by cover zero with no deep safety. When the other team is basically using a RB at QB and commits fully, if you don’t accept those terms you’re choosing to play at a disadvantage.
Steele broke his normal rules around keeping things simple so Auburn’s talent up front could dominate while their backfield swarmed the ball and he brought a stick to a rock fight. Consequently, Moorhead won this round decisively.