First-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn rightfully finds himself on the receiving end of national praise this week in the aftermath of the Tigers’ 45-41 upset win at Texas A&M.
The victory propelled Auburn to a No. 11 ranking in the BCS standings released this weekend. Such momentum underscores the excellent job Malzahn has done turning around a program that went 3-9 without a conference win a season ago.
Not surprisingly, the Tigers’ biggest steps forward have come offensively. Malzahn recruited the bulk of talent on the roster to fit his system – not the pro-style offense former coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler futilely attempted to install in 2012.
While the system reboot plays a huge role in Auburn’s resurgence, Malzahn’s play-calling – teamed with the new talent on The Plains – create the biggest difference.
The biggest strategy worth noting is Malzahn prodding defenses with different play calls and then his repeated use of said plays once he finds something that works.
It’s hardly a new effort. Many teams have employed it for years, including last season when Alabama ran the same one or run plays at Georgia during the second half of the SEC Championship Game.
Fewer teams, however, will call the same pass routes in close proximity.
Malzahn used two identical plays within two snaps of each other. One backfired, the other paid off both in the moment and later in the game.
First, take a look at the play calls that backfired because of poor execution.
Closing in on halftime, Auburn forced a Texas A&M punt that the Aggies downed at the 1-yard line. Rather than playing it conservatively and running the ball to force A&M to use its timeouts, Malzahn dialed up a first-down vertical pass.
Auburn WR Sammie Coates beat A&M CB Deshazor Everett – one of the best in the SEC – down the field but QB Nick Marshall badly under-threw Coates on the incompletion.
Rather than give up on that idea, Malzahn stuck it in his back pocket. He ran the ball straight ahead on second down, forcing the Aggies to call a timeout.
On third down, Malzahn went back to the well. He called the same vertical pass his team had open two plays ago.
Coates beat Everett off the line again and had separation along the sideline. This time, Marshall put his throw right on Coates’ hands, but the receiver dropped a potential 96-yard touchdown pass.
With two wasted play calls sandwiching a short run, Auburn had to punt. A&M got the ball on the Tigers’ side of midfield and WR Mike Evans scored on a short pass on the first play of the drive to give the Aggies a 24-17 halftime lead.
The other play Malzahn went to on several occasions actually got set up the week before.
Ole Miss connected on a wheel route for a fourth-quarter, go-ahead score. Though the Aggies came back for the win, Malzahn easily found the play on film and wanted to test early on if A&M shored up its defense on that play.
He tried it on the first drive, though Marshall didn’t see a wide-open C.J. Uzomah streaking down the sideline for what would have been six points. CBS color commentator Gary Danielson correctly pointed the play out and wanted to see if Malzahn would go back to it.
Later in the first quarter, with the ball deep in Auburn territory, Malzahn called the same play – this time to FB Jay Prosch. This time, Marshall found the open Prosch, who – with limited God-given speed – rumbled for a 56-yard gain.
The third-down conversion led to a touchdown on the drive.
Late in the game, with Auburn trailing, Malzahn went back to the wheel route.
On third-and-9 from the A&M 27, WR Marcus Davis ran the route from the slot position and he again beat the secondary down the sideline. Marshall hit Davis in stride for a 27-yard gain.
Two plays later, RB Tre Mason reached the ball across the goal-line for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.