AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome back to Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deep breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.
Auburn’s offensive performance in a 14-6 loss to Clemson last Saturday was historically bad. The Tigers couldn’t do much of anything for most of the game, putting up just 15 yards after halftime.
The biggest problem for Auburn’s offense came in the form of a record-breaking 11 sacks from Clemson. The Tigers were behind the chains on several drives, and Clemson shut down several of Auburn’s biggest plays — especially ones in obvious scoring situations.
Naturally, a game with 11 sacks is going to cause a lot of pointed fingers at Auburn’s offensive line. But there’s no one solution for what’s wrong with the Auburn offense. While the line had a horrible game, those sack numbers were inflated by widespread offensive problems against a championship-caliber defense away from home.
So, in this edition of the Film Room, let’s break down what went wrong on all 11 of Clemson’s sacks Saturday night. These specific plays summarize the issues that have plagued the Tigers offense in a underwhelming Week 1 blowout and a disastrous Week 2 trip to Death Valley.
(Note: Due to the higher number of GIFs in this week’s post, give your computer or phone some extra time to load everything up before reading.)
Sack 1: 1st-and-10 at the AU 25 (15:00 1Q)
Who’s at fault: Darius James and Prince Tega Wanogho
On the first play of the game, Auburn went with a straight dropback out of a four-wide set — a sign that Chip Lindsey was opening up the offense more from the first snap.
Austin Bryant got his first good jump on Prince Tega Wanogho, who made his first start at left tackle against a quality opponent. Bryant brought enough pressure to cause Jarrett Stidham to get happy feet in the pocket. He moved to the right before right tackle Darius James’ matchup, Kendall Joseph, came in for the sack. At one point, James just completely stopped blocking Joseph.
After the sack was made, ESPN sideline reporter Todd McShay offered some ominous words: “This is something to watch all night: the pass rush of Clemson vs. Stidham. … [Stidham] is really impressive when he has time to throw, but you’ve got to watch him under pressure. He’s struggled to trust his protection.”
Sack 2: 2nd-and-7 at the CU 43 (1:48 1Q)
Who’s at fault: A little bit of everyone
This isn’t a traditional sack, and it didn’t come on a traditional play. Auburn went with a reverse flea-flicker — one that Purdue used to great success Friday night — but Stidham was forced to throw it away. He’s still charged with a sack, though, thanks to intentional grounding.
The grounding call was a controversial one, and it can be confusing to break down. SB Nation’s Alex Kirshner did a good job of explaining it Sunday afternoon. In short, Stidham gave up possession on the toss to Kamryn Pettway, which means the “outside the tackle box” exception to grounding calls went away for Stidham once he got the ball back.
As a play, the coverage was solid from Clemson, and Auburn didn’t do the best job of protecting it. James’ man, Joseph, provided additional pressure after a free run from Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. Eli Stove might have been a little late coming across to protect as well after the pitchback. ESPN color commentator Brian Griese said he saw “a mistake up front” in the play.
And, as the zoomed-out view shows, Stidham had nobody wide open in the slow-developing play.
This is an opportunity where Stidham could have taken a chance downfield. Sal Cannella had a jump on his man on the wheel route at the bottom of the screen, and Nate Craig-Myers would have gone one-on-one with a safety on the post. In the end, Stidham elected to throw it away — something he should have done more — but it still went down as a sack with the grounding call.
Sack 3: 3rd-and-5 at the CU 6 (15:00 2Q)
Who’s at fault: Braden Smith
This one stung Auburn, and it was a case of an All-American beating an All-American. Clemson star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence just brushed past Auburn right guard Braden Smith, and that gave Stidham zero time to throw. (He had Pettway on a delayed check-down that would’ve at least been close to a touchdown.) Christian Wilkins is credited with the sack, but this play is all Lawrence over Smith.
Auburn was forced to kick another field goal after this sack. With two trips inside the Clemson 10-yard line, the Tigers came away with two field goals. That would be the big difference in the ball game, as Clemson tacked on two touchdowns with its two best scoring chances.
Sack 4: 2nd-and-1 at the AU 30 (0:26 2Q)
Who’s at fault: Stidham or the receivers
This was the weakest definition of a “sack” all night, but it still hurt Auburn. The Tigers were trying to move the ball downfield after Clemson went up with a late second-quarter touchdown. Stidham had good protection on this play, but he either saw no one open or was too hesitant. Without an all-22 camera, it’s hard to tell if he had someone open.
In either case, with time running out in the quarter, he could have chucked the ball out of bounds once he left the tackle box. Running across the field and stepping out took about six seconds off the clock. Auburn decided to take it to the locker room after this play.
Sack 5: 2nd-and-5 from the AU 35 (10:23 3Q)
Who’s at fault: Wanogho and, to a lesser extent, Stidham
Early in the third quarter, Auburn nearly avoided total disaster on a sack fumble. Bryant jumped the snap with ease — this was during the time in the second half when Clemson was doing that with regularity — and blew past Wanogho. He caused a fumble, but Wanogho landed on it to avoid the turnover.
This is another case of Wangoho losing his one-on-one matchup with an on-fire defensive end. But Griese made a point in the replay to say Stidham needed to do a better job of getting rid of the ball on this play. The former quarterback said Stidham has “to have [an internal] clock… the ball’s got to be out after two hitches.”
It’s also worth noting Auburn didn’t have any receivers open, and all but one were running deep routes. That’s a recipe for disaster when a defensive end such as Bryant gets a (legal) head start on the edge.
Sack 6: 3rd-and-14 at the AU 26 (9:40 3Q)
Who’s at fault: James and a lack of options
On the next play, James got beat by a good jump from Joseph, which caused Stidham to step up in the pocket quickly. He has no space there, and Joseph came back to make the sack.
After the play, Griese said something that summed up Auburn’s second-half offense: “One of the biggest issues I have with this offense and Gus Malzahn is that when you bring in a quarterback like this to throw the ball, you’ve got to give him options. You can’t just run deep routes and run the ball. … There haven’t been a lot of concepts and intermediate passing plays for this offense.”
Sack 7: 4th-and-3 at the CU 37 (5:45 3Q)
Who’s at fault: Offensive line miscommunication against great defense
Auburn got into Clemson territory in the third quarter, but a busted fourth-down attempt wiped away any chance of scoring. This was a peculiar play from the outset, as evidenced by this split-screen view of Malzahn and Lindsey before the snap:
Auburn went with an unbalanced look in the sugar huddle that brought Wanogho to the other side, almost at a right guard position. Something went wrong with the protection, as Wanogho is caught in no-man’s land for most of the play. After Smith slid over to help protect, a delayed blitzer came in for a clean shot at Stidham.
The play was designed for Chandler Cox on a wheel route, but Stidham just didn’t have the time due to excellent delayed blitz call from Brent Venables.
Sack 8: 3rd-and-7 from the AU 15 (14:23 4Q)
Who’s at fault: Wanogho
Stidham didn’t have a receiver open on this third-down play deep in his own territory, and the quarterback wouldn’t have had time to get it to him if he were open. Wanogho allowed quick pressure off the left side with Bryant. Stidham had to roll out to try to make something happen, but he was hounded out of bounds by the Clemson defense.
This was a game to forget from Wanogho, who was partly to blame for at least 4 sacks.
Sack 9: 1st-and-10 from the CU 45 (5:22 4Q)
Who’s at fault: Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell
For one last time in the second half, Auburn’s offense did just enough to inch into Clemson territory down by a touchdown. But after it got there, Stidham was sacked three straight times to end any hope.
On the first one, Stidham had nowhere to go on the play. Auburn wanted a screen pass to Kam Martin, but defensive end Clelin Ferrell shut it down on the edge with a nice effort. Stidham had the protection here. However, without Martin open, he got happy feet. Clemson took care of things with an easy sack.
Sack 10: 2nd-and-13 from the CU 48 (4:43 4Q)
Who’s at fault: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables
On the next play, Auburn got outclassed by a great blitz call that Griese described as “classic Venables.” With the five linemen up front taking care of the four defensive linemen, Pettway had to pick up the first blitzing linebacker.
That bought enough time for Clemson to “green dog” — sending an extra linebacker in man-to-man coverage to blitz once the running back had been occupied by the first blitzer. It’s the same thing that happened on the fourth-down miss in the third quarter. This time, Auburn had correct protection, it just didn’t have enough hats in the box to slow down the delayed blitz.
For all the self-inflicted woes Auburn had in its 11 allowed sacks Saturday night, Nos. 9 and 10 were examples of excellent defense by one of the best in college football.
Sack 11: 3rd-and-20 from the AU 45 (4:03 4Q)
Who’s at fault: A lack of options
Clemson’s final sack of the night came down to expertly played defense and a lack of options from the Auburn offense. Clemson rushed four on this play, and the Auburn line survived the initial rush.
But with seven defenders in coverage and only three receivers running routes, Auburn had no chance on this play. Each receiver was double-covered, and Clemson left a free linebacker in the middle to spy a blocking Cox. With the game on the line, this might have been Auburn’s most hopeless offensive snap.
It’s on everybody
THE BLAME GAME
(times mentioned above, with some overlap)
- Offensive line: 7
- Wanogho: 4
- James: 3
- Smith: 1
- Jarrett Stidham: 3
- Receivers: 3
- Clemson’s defense: 3
Auburn’s offensive line was responsible for the majority of Clemson’s 11 sacks. Wanogho was at fault on at least 3 sacks, and James also had three. Smith had a rare miss on a crucial third-down play in the red zone.
This is one of those performances that should force Auburn to evaluate every possible option on the offensive line, especially with Mercer coming to town this weekend. The Tigers can’t have their two tackles have this much trouble against elite pass rushes. They’ll face a few more this season in the SEC.
But all 11 sacks weren’t on the offensive line, and others had their roles in several of them. Stidham was too hesitant to take chances on 50-50 balls. Holding on to the ball too long resulted in some of those sacks, and he could have simply thrown away the ball on a few.
Auburn’s receivers need to do a better job of getting open as well. This has been an issue for two straight weeks, and the solution is two-fold. The receivers themselves need to show improvement, and Auburn’s staff has to change up the play-calling. Just going deep against an outstanding defense is a recipe for disaster, as Stidham didn’t have any time to get into a rhythm Saturday night.
When all those issues stack on top of each other against one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, the success rate is already slim. Fortunately for Auburn, it has a top-tier defense of its own and a couple of weak defenses (Mercer and Missouri) to play the next two weeks.
That should buy enough time for Malzahn, Lindsey, Stidham, the offensive line and the receivers to get on the same page. Improvement has to come across the board, or else Auburn could be behind the chains — and behind in the SEC standings — for most of the season.