AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome back to Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deeper breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.
Auburn’s offense practically curled up into a ball after halftime in its last two games against Ole Miss and LSU. In one of those games, that led to a blowout looking closer on the scoreboard than it actually was on the field. In the other, Auburn blew a 20-point lead and a chance to stay in the middle of the playoff race.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took responsibility for the Tigers’ poor offensive second halves and vowed to change things. In the third quarter Saturday night against Arkansas, his team did that — putting up 28 points and 239 yards in what quickly turned into a 32-point beatdown. By the time the fourth quarter started, Auburn already had its backups ready to go.
That third quarter set the tone for a blowout, and it wasn’t anything like what Auburn had done after halftime in a long time. That’s the subject of our Film Room this week. How did Auburn’s offense go from timid in second halves to one that was scoring for fun on the road in the third quarter?
Throughout this Film Room, I’m going to compare Auburn’s offensive third quarter against Arkansas to how it did in the third quarter of the season’s first seven games.
While these games are all different when it comes to situational flow — and some are close to the Arkansas third quarter in certain aspects — Auburn had its best combination of explosion, balance, pace and a couple more factors Saturday night.
In fact, according to the numbers at Football Study Hall, Arkansas’ defense entered Week 8 ranked 54th in third-quarter performance. This unit hadn’t fallen flat in third quarters this season. Alabama only scored 7 third-quarter points on the Hogs a week earlier. Undefeated TCU was shut out in the third in Week 2.
In terms of third-quarter defenses, Auburn has played against much worse this season — and did less.
|OPPONENT||3Q DEF. S&P+||AU 3Q PTS||AU 3Q YPP|
Granted, Auburn had perfect field position for one of its third-quarter touchdowns against Arkansas, and it had a one-play drive with Ryan Davis’ touchdown pass to Darius Slayton. (Keep an eye out later Monday for a deeper dive into that trick-play touchdown here at SEC Country.)
But Auburn had its best third quarter of the season in terms of pure explosion. Seven of its 23 plays — nearly a third — went for double-digit yards.
Better balance played a huge part in that. In good third quarters this season, Auburn has mostly been a run-heavy team. In the last two games against Ole Miss and LSU, that conservative style led to poor showings after halftime.
Auburn made a concerted effort after halftime to stay balanced in both yardage and play calls, and it was as efficient as ever in both areas.
|OPPONENT||3Q RUSHING||3Q PASSING|
|Georgia Southern||13 for 92 (3.3 YPC)||4-7 for 49 (7.0 YPA)|
|Clemson||8 for -17 (-2.1)||4-8 for 26 (3.3)|
|Mercer||6 for 29 (4.8)||7-10 for 93 (9.3)|
|Missouri||13 for 88 (6.8)||4-6 for 71 (11.8)|
|Mississippi State||9 for 55 (6.1)||3-4 for 58 (14.5)|
|Ole Miss||14 for 54 (3.9)||4-8 for 37 (4.6)|
|LSU||9 for 21 (2.3)||1-4 for 6 (1.5)|
|Arkansas||12 for 117 (9.8)||8-11 for 122 (11.1)|
The Tigers’ first three play calls in the third quarter were passes, with Stidham scrambling for a first down on third down. Stidham’s ability to run, which he hadn’t showcased much in the first seven games, was big in the third quarter. He kept it on a run-pass option (RPO) for a gain of 13 on the first touchdown drive.
Three plays later, Stidham pulled the RPO back and threw a hitch to Ryan Davis, who broke loose for a 14-yard gain. That set up a Kamryn Pettway touchdown on the next play.
These are simple plays that went for chunk yards. While they aren’t earth-shattering by any means, keep in mind that Stidham didn’t throw on an RPO or keep it for himself a single time last week against LSU.
Whatever happened between the staff and the signal caller that made him flip the switch — whether it was an emphasis on better reads or, possibly, less designed handoffs disguised as RPOs — definitely worked.
Another example of Auburn’s improved strategy in the third quarter compared to its last few second-half clunkers came on the second drive of the frame. On third-and-4, Auburn gets man coverage on the outside. Last week, the Tigers just threw it deep on these types of plays.
This time, though, Stidham changes the deep route into an intermediate one with a perfect back-shoulder throw to Slayton. It moves the chains, and Pettway broke free for his 38-yard touchdown run on the next play.
Note the play clock on both of those plays. Auburn didn’t waste time between plays against Arkansas, especially in the third quarter. The emphasis on tempo was apparent.
Auburn hasn’t exactly flown down the field this season on offense. Through the first eight games of the season, the Tigers are averaging 25.6 seconds between plays — which is calculated as total time of possession divided by the total number of plays. That’s slightly below the national average from 2016.
Auburn went below that average in four of its five drives in the third quarter against Arkansas, including a blistering 17-second-per-play opening possession. Auburn snapped the ball with 30 or more seconds left on the play clock on five of its 11 plays in that drive, including those two aforementioned RPO keepers.
That gassed the Arkansas defense, which was already coming into the game at less-than-stellar physical condition after a physical blowout loss to Alabama.
Auburn averaged a little more than 20 seconds between plays in the third quarter against Arkansas, which was significantly lower than any other mark it had this season against an FBS team.
|OPPONENT||AVERAGE TIME BETWEEN PLAYS|
|Georgia Southern||23.2 seconds|
|Mississippi State||29.0 seconds|
|Ole Miss||26.7 seconds|
The testament to pace went beyond the third quarter, too. Auburn had an average of 21.7 seconds on its opening touchdown drive and 18.3 seconds on its final touchdown drive in the first half.
Chip Lindsey and the offensive staff didn’t substitute nearly as much in this game, electing to keep the same packages after first downs and big plays. It was a much-needed return for Auburn, especially after melting the clock after halftime in its last three games.
Any offensive takeaway from the Arkansas game comes with a caveat, and it should. Arkansas is arguably the worst team in the SEC. It was playing in front of lots of empty seats for most of the second half. The Razorbacks, winless against Power 5 teams this season, aren’t playing with a ton of energy at the moment.
However, Auburn has done much worse after halftime this season, with some of those lackluster third quarters coming against even lesser-quality opponents.
The Tigers needed to make a statement in Fayetteville, and they did, even though it won’t matter too much in the long run if they can’t repeat against better teams in November. (For those curious, Texas A&M ranks 37th nationally in third-quarter defensive S&P+, while Georgia and Alabama are second and ninth, respectively.)
Still, there’s something to be said for Malzahn and his staff seeing a problem, addressing it, and showing some differences after halftime.