AUBURN, Ala. — It’s easy for Auburn football fans to get caught up in the numbers.
Auburn ran the ball 69 percent of the time last season. The Tigers had as run-heavy an offense as one could find outside of the service academies and triple option-based New Mexico. They even averaged more carries per game than option teams Georgia Tech and Tulane.
Auburn could be predictable and still punishing when healthy. However, when the injury bug bit the backfield, Gus Malzahn’s offense couldn’t maintain the efficiency that made the Tigers a top-10 team at one point.
But frustration on the Plains soon shifted toward optimism. Malzahn landed big-armed transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, threw 12 touchdowns and was intercepted just twice as a true freshman at Baylor in 2015. He later brought in Chip Lindsey — a one-time analyst who rose quickly as an offensive coordinator at Southern Miss and Arizona State — to revamp his offense.
With Stidham and Lindsey on board, a lot of attention focused on that nearly 70-30 run-pass play-calling split. Last season at Arizona State, Lindsey’s offense threw the ball 47 percent of the time. In his second season at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles passed more than they ran.
Malzahn has preached balance since Lindsey’s hire, and Stidham threw the ball 20 times in one half of the annual spring game. Can this new combination bring the Tigers close to 50-50?
Malzahn and Lindsey haven’t discussed numbers this fall. Instead of looking at it as a pure play-call ratio, the new duo sees balance as a mindset.
“We’re going to be able to run the football,” Malzahn said earlier this month. “But when they give us the pass, especially in one-on-ones, the expectation is to make plays. Chip has done a super job so far with that. We talked about balance, and that’s probably the best way I can put it. I expect us to be balanced from the standpoint of taking what a defense gives you.”
Lindsey and Stidham arrived at Auburn to tweak the wheel, not reinvent it. The Tigers still have the SEC’s leader in rushing yards per game in Kamryn Pettway.
Versatile running back Kerryon Johnson might play a bigger role in the passing game this fall, but he had double-digit rushing touchdowns last fall — and he doesn’t see those opportunities going away under Lindsey.
“[Lindsey] knows that running the ball is our strength, but that’s only going to open up the pass even more,” Johnson said. “I mean, if you look at what we did last year on the ground and you look at the kind of yards we put up … most of those games we had maybe 200, 300 total yards. We could have 500, 450 or something like that [from] extra passing yards.
“So it’s not like he’s going to shy away from it. He still knows that we have one of the best backfields in the country and he’s not going to be afraid to use it.”
The fundamental belief in this new-look Auburn offense is exactly what Johnson said — running the ball is going to open up the pass even more. Auburn couldn’t take full advantage of loaded boxes and 1-on-1 matchups last season; Lindsey, Stidham and a confident receiving group are there to change that.
The opposite is true, as well. Auburn wants to get the ball in the air earlier in drives and keep defenses off-balance with run-pass options. If Stidham can get on a roll, defenses will leave more room for Pettway and Johnson to rack up rushing yards.
“I’d say [Auburn is] always going to be running, always running in the SEC,” sophomore receiver Eli Stove said last week. “But [Lindsey] puts in the deep ball a little bit more, the 50-50 balls that’s going to be on us to make the plays.”
For Lindsey, it’s more about having the ability to be balanced than it is forcing a specific balance between run and pass calls.
Some defenses Auburn will face will be tougher up front than they will at the back. Some will overplay, while others will be cautious. That could lead to run-first performances one week and games with 30-plus pass attempts the next.
Lindsey’s ultimate goal is for defenses not to be able to focus on one area of his Auburn offense.
“I think it’s important because we need to be able to make the defense defend all the positions,” Lindsey said. “At the same time, when you go into a game I think it’s important to identify your playmakers … build the offense around those guys, try to get them the ball as much as you can. If it’s both your running backs like I’ve had before, then that was an emphasis. … If it’s all your wideouts, I’ve had years where it’s been that.”
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Auburn knows it has playmakers in the backfield with the established Pettway and Johnson. The staff thinks it has a winning quarterback in Stidham. And the Tigers could have a few more game-changers out wide in the form of Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis and Stove — young receivers with high ceilings.
Fans and media members alike will be obsessed with the numbers. Can Pettway lead the SEC in rushing yards per game again while sharing a backfield with Stidham? Could Auburn have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in this offense? Will the Tigers have their first 1,000-yard receiver since 1999?
Don’t expect this Auburn offense to chase any of those marks. Instead, look for an attack that expects to beat defenses in a variety of ways.
“We definitely want to be aggressive,” Lindsey said. “We want to stretch the field vertically and horizontally, and we feel like we’ve got the guys to do that. So my expectation is for us to play really good winning football and take what the defense gives us.”