BATON ROUGE, La. — Predictable doesn’t even begin to describe what Auburn football’s offense did on first down for a majority of its 27-23 loss at LSU.
At one point during the game, Auburn ran the ball on 17 consecutive first downs. That streak stretched from just under 1 minute remaining in the first quarter to the 2:36 mark in the fourth quarter — nearly three entire periods.
Auburn only threw the ball five times on first down against LSU. Two of those times came on the game’s first drive, and two others came after the visiting Tigers were trailing late in the fourth quarter.
That was below Auburn’s average of a little more than 7 first-down pass attempts per game through the first half of the season under offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said the long streak of first-down runs were meant to shorten the distance for later downs. The Tigers converted 3 of their 14 third downs, with only one coming after halftime.
|AUBURN FIRST-DOWN CALLS vs. LSU|
|Pass||Jarrett Stidham to Sal Cannella||7|
|Pass||Jarrett Stidham to Kerryon Johnson||1|
|Run||Kerryon Johnson||4, TD|
|Pass||Jarrett Stidham to Eli Stove||Incomplete|
|Pass||Jarrett Stidham to Devan Barrett||0|
|Pass||Jarrett Stidham to Will Hastings||Incomplete|
“We were running the ball pretty effectively in the first half,” Malzahn said. “Trying to get to those third-down-and-shorts and stuff like that. Obviously, when you only get one first down in the second half, we’ve just got to do a better job.”
That was the game plan, Auburn junior receiver Ryan Davis said, to stay committed to the ground attack.
“I think our running game in the first half had been doing really well,” he said. “We were trying to stick to that. We were doing what worked at first.”
But Auburn’s rushing attempts on first down rarely accomplished their desired effect.
On those 17 consecutive first-down carries, Auburn rushed for 50 yards — an average of 2.94 yards. None of those attempts went for double-digit yardage.
According to Football Study Hall, a successful first-down play in college football gets 50 percent of the necessary yardage. In this streak of 17 first-down carries, only three of them reached the 5-yard mark, and one of them came when Auburn was trying to chew the late second-quarter clock and get to halftime.
That’s a success rate of 18.8 percent on first down.
The constant run calls were conservative at best and overly simplistic at worst for Auburn’s offense. Twelve of the 17 consecutive rushes on first down were by Kerryon Johnson, who had fewer than 40 rushing yards in the second half after breaking the century mark before halftime.
Fellow junior running back Kamryn Pettway had three of his four total carries come on first downs. They went for a combined 2 yards. Pettway’s usage, as ineffective as it may have been, even fell below what Auburn had in mind heading into the game.
“Pettway is good enough to go,” Malzahn said. “We felt strongly about that. Our plan was to give Pettway about 10 carries.”
No matter who took them, the 17 consecutive first-down carries also added to the Tigers’ problems in the red zone.
The streak included Auburn’s last two trips inside the LSU 20-yard line, which both came in the second quarter.
On first-and-10 from the 20-yard line early in the second quarter, Johnson was stopped behind the line for a loss of one yard. Auburn went backward even more on a substitution infraction. Two incompletions later, Auburn was forced to settle for a field goal.
Two drives later, Auburn called back-to-back run plays after reaching the LSU 10-yard line. The first-down one went for 3 yards, and the next one was stuffed at the line. Auburn threw an incompletion on third-and-goal from the LSU 7-yard line and kicked another field goal.
“When we’re in the red zone, we’ve got to capitalize on a team like LSU,” said Davis, who did not have a target following an early second-quarter completion.
But Auburn failed to turn things around from its early run-heavy mistakes, and the issues continued after halftime. This time, Auburn couldn’t get in striking distance as it failed to move the chains.
Auburn's play calling tonight was predictable, to say the least:
1st down: 21 runs, 5 passes
3rd down: 2 runs, 10 passes
— Josh Vitale (@AUBlog) October 15, 2017
Thanks in part to its ineffectiveness on first down, Auburn’s average distance to gain on third downs in the second half totaled 8.27 yards.
Malzahn repeatedly pointed to Auburn’s lack of execution on third downs as the difference between winning its fifth consecutive game and a historic loss at LSU.
Yet Auburn set the table for its 20-point blown lead with a hyper-conservative offensive strategy headlined by 17 straight carries on first down.
Third downs might win and lose games, but first downs have a game-changing effect on how those look.