It’s not every week that you play a tough game against a west coast team with a lot on the line in terms of respect. It’s not every week that Auburn faces some of the top prospects for the NFL on offense, including what may very well end up being QB1. It’s not every week that Auburn beats the team they faced almost 10 years ago in the National Championship, and in much the same fashion they did it the first time.
Suffice it to say, this performance was a rare thing indeed. Let’s talk about it.
The first play I want to look at is a pretty simple dive play on 3rd and 2. Oregon plays from the Pistol most of the time, and Auburn was lined up with a very thin front, which tells me they weren’t really expecting a run up the gut, or at least trusted their DTs to consume blockers for KJ Britt.
As you can see, Britt (#33) didn’t get through or around his man. This run worked to perfection for Oregon in large part because Auburn still had to respect the threat of Herbert’s arm. Mad respect to the Oregon offensive line for effectively climbing to the 2nd level with their blocking and making use of double teams to neutralize Derrick Brown. Later on, as Oregon started to rely more heavily on the run to try and protect their lead, Auburn would begin to completely smother their backs.
That massive bust in the secondary for a big gain on the first drive wasn’t really anyone in particular’s fault from what I can discern. I’ve watched the play upwards of a dozen times and it’s clear there was a mistake in the pass-off in zone coverage, but aside from that I have a hard time placing blame. It seems to me like Christian Tutt should have stayed with his man in the slot, but in zone coverage there should have been another defender to pick up the slot crosser.
Pictured here is Derrick Brown being an absolute freak of nature and putting his nose down to do some dirty work. This great looking tackle by Britt does not happen without Brown essentially pancake blocking the right guard and opening a seam for defenders to stream into. Really the entire defensive line got some excellent penetration here, and they would get it with more regularity as the game went on.
I noticed this when I was inside the stadium much later, but it seems to me that Oregon was very pointedly targeting Tutt on defense all night. They figured Tutt was the most likely defender to fall for the misdirection routes and make mistakes in coverage. Early on he made those mistakes, later on he didn’t. Lots of improvement defensively after the first half was out, especially in downfield coverage.
I’m not going to go over Nix’s first pass because we’ve seen it’s like before, and recently enough that I don’t really feel like I have to explain that not a single human being on this earth can stay in front of Will Hastings. What really excites me about Auburn’s 2nd drive is the Nix designed keeper right after. As others on twitter have stated, while it may look as though Nix is reading whether to keep the ball, the reach block by Spencer Nigh tells me that Nix was always supposed to get this carry, and his speed around the edge allows him to turn one explosive play into two. We have missed this kind of presence on the ground from a QB for a long, long time.
Pay attention to the blocking on that run as well. Nix was not running for his life; he was getting downfield with not a defender in sight. This is what Gus’ offense aims for when running the QB. Many will say you can’t be a dual threat without being able to run somebody over, but Gus always tries to get his designed QB runs working to the boundary (unless your name is Cam Newton, more on that later)
This next play on defense, a big run by CJ Verdell, is the near exclusive result of Chandler Wooten trying to fight downhill to early and leaving a wide-open gap because of it. Even with that mistake, Zackoby McClain still almost brings him down before he can get the edge. Later attempts by Oregon at running this sort of play would result in 2-3 yards, maybe less, simply due to additional coaching for the LBs at halftime.
I never thought I’d see the day, but it seems like Eli Stove is actually even better at getting yards after the catch than in 2017. He is a true weapon in this offense, but even more than that I’m interested in the play call. In 2017 it was my understanding that Auburn was running this play as a substitute for the read option because Stidham couldn’t beat people with his legs, but Nix is immeasurably faster than Stidham ever was. I expect evolution on this concept at some point in the season.
It’s easy to look at the 2nd Half and think that that’s where Auburn’s defense really took over and clamped down on the Oregon offense, but I think it really started here, with the concerted effort by the defense to just get Herbert to 3rd down and force him to make a decision before he wanted to. No turnover baiting, no trying to play for TFLs. Bend to 3rd down, make your stand there. It worked. On this drive, Noah Igbinoghene tosses aside a weak WR blocking effort and finds the ball carrier, while everyone else soon follows to smother the poor man. This strategy, combined with Oregon’s insistence on running the ball and eating clock above all else in the 2nd half, would eventually lead to Auburn getting a chance to win it.
Alright I can’t not have this play in the recap. What a play by Big Kat Bryant. The presence of mind to see the exchange and scoop it up, the speed to cross the entire field and dang near score it, just the whole thing is beautiful, but I think the credit has to go to Derrick Brown for disrupting the exchange. It’s rather hard to hand the ball off with an offensive guard in your lap.
We’re gonna jump ahead a good ways now, to when this comeback really got kicked into high gear. Bo Nix had himself a 4th quarter, but there is a player whose name I really need to put some respek on, and that’s Boobie Whitlow. His efforts, and that of the offensive line, made the effort possible, even allowing Auburn to succeed without Nix providing an especially potent threat through the air (until the very end).
Here Whitlow does his very best Kerryon Johnson impression and waits behind the line so long I had started to think he thought the play was over. That man waits, waits, then slides to his left and makes a 1st down run out of chaos. I will freaking take it. The zone blocking is finally, finally working, and with Whitlow’s threat to run, other things start to work too, like an Eli Stove end around that came right after this beauty of a run.
This is my second-favorite Bo Nix throw of the night, just behind the game winner. Nix shows an understanding of the game situation and a level of control of the offense that Auburn has not seen. Period. Not Cam, not Jarrett, not even Nick Marshall. Nix has the offense down to the point that he is hurrying the offense to get this play off before the ball is even spotted. The entire offense (and defense) outside of Bo Nix and Eli Stove is unaware of what’s about to happen. Whitlow is expecting the ball on a handoff, the offensive line is blocking for a run, the other receivers are running their DBs out of the play.
This play shows an uncharacteristic mastery of the offense by Nix, especially for a true freshman. Parrot his 42% completion percentage at me from dawn till dusk, complain about the interceptions, I don’t care. He balled the hell out when it mattered.
I’m sure this defensive snap will look familiar to fans of Deshaun Davis. KJ Britt is everything I wanted out of a middle linebacker and then some, looking forward to him taking some more heads off this season. Not a whole lot else to say, Oregon just played directly into Kevin Steele’s hands for the entire 2nd half offensively.
Joey Freaking Gatewood. It’s easy to think as the guy who narrowly missed getting the job as QB1 that Joey would loaf his only snap on the field, but instead he did his job and did it well. It’s not easy to stare down an entire defense and opt to put the ball in danger. Auburn went as heavy as it absolutely could on this play trying to get inches, just inches for Joey to reach the ball over, and they did it. I think this game, as much as anything, was a statement from the offensive line that yes, Auburn can and will be able to move people again.
I’m seriously looking forward to Joey’s role in the coming weeks, he can be an amazing “silver bullet” player for us.
Sometimes in close games you have that moment, that point where one team says “no, you move.” It’s a moment when one team knows with absolute certainty that they can win here, that the other guy might be strong, but they’re stronger. Herbert is out for a play for a stinger. Oregon’s left side of the OL is strongest. Kevin Steele slants the entire defense that way. They get nothing. Auburn football, both the result and the philosophy.
4th and 3. Game on the line. Nix takes the snap, rolls right. Three receivers downfield. All covered. There’s room in front. Dives for the first down, heedless of the danger to himself. He gets it. 1st down Auburn.
Great play call from Gus here. He knows what he has in Nix, and that he commands the attention of at least 4 defenders outside the box with receivers. Nix taking the ball himself was a designed possibility in this play. Well done coach.
Here it is. The best throw Bo Nix made all night. Eerily similar to the big throw his father made to Frank Sanders all those years ago, in the biggest possible moment. National audience, sellout crowd, game on the line, seconds remaining.
All night, Oregon had been putting Seth Williams in bracket coverage, keeping him contained, silent. All night, Nix had struggled to find him, making errant throws to try and manufacture a big play. Finally, when Auburn absolutely needed it most, Nix delivered a dart. Again, this is a true freshman making this throw. 13-31, 2 INTs, blah blah blah. Nix was 1-1 on game winning passes Saturday and ran the offense better than he had any right to as a true freshman making his first start.
Let’s wrap this up. This Auburn team does not know how to quit. I’ve seen them give up before in years past, but not this team. It’s week 1 and already I can tell who they are. Call it hyperbole on my part, but we beat a national contender on Saturday despite all the mistakes we made, and despite the youth at key positions. That tells me that Auburn is a better team, from top to bottom, than Oregon.
The better team won. On to Tulane.
Great breakdown and analysis. I agree wholeheartedly with your opinion that Nix had a great first game. A true freshman against a very good college team, played in a stadium he had never played in before. Too many nay-sayers are harping on the interceptions, and failing to see his growth during the game in that he did not throw interceptions in the second half.
Even the so-called veterans on this team improved in the second half. It was the first game. Oregon was a fast team, and well-coached. All the other top 25 teams played Mickey Mouse and the 7 Dwarfs for their opener.
As far as I’m concerned, Nix did everything he was asked to do in his first start and more. Obviously I’m not a fan of his throwing picks, but that’s fixable, and one of them I would argue (the Sal Cannella deep ball) wasn’t *entirely* his fault. I really want to see how he builds on this performance this next weekend, I’d love the central focus of the next one of these to be Nix’s meteoric growth as a passer.
Outside of Nix, Britt’s performance really stood out to me. He didn’t blow up the stat sheet, but especially in the 2nd half, he did his job, and commanded the defense very well. Bright days in Auburn.