Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham only had 6 passing yards after halftime against LSU.

Ferg’s Film Room: Stubborn second-half strategy cost Auburn a win at LSU

AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome back to Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deeper breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.

Last week in the film room, Auburn showcased a stronger rushing attack under offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in another quick-start, lopsided victory over an SEC opponent. That session ended with a breakdown of why that was important for Auburn, as its next two opponents — LSU and Arkansas — were struggling teams susceptible to the run.

On Saturday, Auburn moved the ball well on the ground at first, which was expected. But LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and coach Ed Orgeron made an adjustment to slow down that rushing attack. And instead of countering that strategy with a new plan of its own, Auburn’s offense forced its first-half strategy past its expiration date in Death Valley, blowing a 20-point lead with its third second-half shutout in its last five losses.

This week’s film room is all about what happened after halftime to Auburn’s offense. When LSU changed things up, Auburn stayed the same. And instead of hitting the quick passes and outside runs that had given the offense so much momentum in its four-game winning streak, Auburn lost a game that looked like a possible blowout.

MORE: LSU collapse sets new low for Auburn’s awful 2nd halves in Malzahn losses

After the game, Gus Malzahn said LSU “played a little more of walking an extra man in the box” after Auburn’s hot offensive start. The box, for those who might not know, is the imaginary rectangle in front of the offensive line that occupies the defensive line and linebackers.

Most defenses, by nature, put between five and seven defenders in the box, depending on the offensive formation. Modern college football, thanks to spread offenses, usually have six or fewer against three-, four- and five-wide receiver sets.

Auburn football
LSU’s first defensive play in the second half featured eight men in the box — three linemen, four linebackers and a sneaking safety over the top. (YouTube)

Early in the game, LSU ran a lot of five- and six-man boxes against Auburn. It progressively featured more seven-man boxes — in Dave Aranda’s defense, they usually consisted of three linemen and all four linebackers — as the game continued. After halftime, LSU went with mostly seven- or eight-man boxes until Auburn’s all-pass final two drives.

Here’s a breakdown of the snap percentages in which Auburn faced the different boxes in the first half, the second half without the final two drives, and the second half as a whole:

# IN BOX 1ST HALF 2ND HALF* 2ND HALF TOTAL
5 16.2% 8.0% 9.4%
6 37.8% 12.0% 28.1%
7 37.8% 52.0% 40.6%
8 8.1% 25.0% 21.9%
* Excluding Auburn’s final two, all-pass drives

LSU responded to Auburn’s run-heavy first half — the visiting Tigers ran the ball on 63.2 percent of their plays before halftime — with more traffic in the box. More than three-fourths of the plays Auburn in the second half were defended with seven- or eight-man boxes.

However, Auburn still plodded along with its strategy. Auburn called running plays 56.5 percent of the time before those final two drives, with 43.5 percent of the total snaps coming right up the middle on the ground.

LSU paired those loaded boxes with a lot of man coverage. When only three or four defensive backs are available in coverage, that leaves a lot of 1-on-1 matchups with minimal safety coverage.

Auburn football-LSU Tigers-Auburn Tigers-Darius Slayton-Grant-Delpit-Andraez Williams-lsu
Auburn receiver Darius Slayton (right) had to play defense on a poor pass attempt against LSU. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

There are a few ways offenses can attack loaded boxes and man coverage. Quick routes, especially ones over the middle if the linebackers are keyed onto the run and can’t provide help, are helpful. Slants, crossing routes and shallow cuts work in these situations with the right receivers.

Good rushing attacks still can find success if they can get the linebackers off-balance. Well-blocked plays to the outside are tough to defend if the ball carrier gets enough space.

Auburn faced 19 plays in which LSU had seven or eight men in the box in the second half Saturday. Look at how they attacked these situations and their average results:

  • Run middle: 10 (3.4 yards per carry)
  • Pass: 5 (1 for 5 for 0 yards)
  • Run left: 4 (3 yards per carry)
    • Buck sweep: 2 (0 yards per carry)
    • WR sweep: 2 (6 yards per carry)

On more than half of the plays against seven- and eight-man boxes, Auburn ran right up the middle — right into all that traffic. Those 10 runs went for 34 yards, and only three went for 5 or more yards. That’s far from ideal in terms of success rate.

The pass calls didn’t make great strategic sense, either. Only 1 of the 5 were completed, and it went for no gain. The other four were deep incompletions — a 45-yard post into double coverage, a 30-yard fly, a 40-yard fly into double coverage, and a 15-yard shot over the middle.

Auburn never used a screen, a slant or any other quick-hitting pass to take advantage of the 1-on-1 matchups to the outside. The passing game kept going deep, which was reminiscent of Auburn’s earlier second-half shutout this season at Clemson.

CBS color commentator Gary Danielson remarked on how Auburn didn’t have any “quick passing options” and was going deep too much.

This played right into LSU’s adjustment. Aranda could put more players in the box and trust his cornerbacks, who haven’t given up many explosive plays this season, to stay with Auburn’s receivers on those long routes. They did just that.

(YouTube)

And since Auburn never threw the ball to a tight end, H-back or a running back in the second half — outside of Devan Barrett’s no-gain swing route on the second-to-last drive — LSU didn’t need to worry about covering them much. It could lock up the receivers and leave a safety deep to play center field.

On the 40-yard fly into double coverage in the fourth quarter, only two receivers went downfield for Auburn. Stidham threw it to Darius Slayton, and LSU had a safety over the top to help get the easy deflection.

Auburn football
(YouTube)

The lack of quick passes came through against five- and six-man boxes as well. In the second half, Jarrett Stidham completed 2 of his 13 passes for 6 yards. Here’s a breakdown of the route depths on each of those throws:

  • 10-15 yards: 6 (0 completions)
    • 10-yard comeback
    • 15-yard dig
    • 10-yard comeback
    • 15-yard dig
    • 15-yard dig
    • 15-yard comeback
  • 30-plus yards: 4 (0 completions)
    • 45-yard post
    • 30-yard fly
    • 40-yard fly
    • 40-yard “get open”/freelance deep shot
  • Quick passes: 3 (2 completions)
    • Crossing route for 6
    • Crossing route
    • Swing to motioned RB for 0

Again, a non-wide receiver was only targeted once on those 13 passes. LSU became conditioned to not worry about the running backs and the H-backs, who almost exclusively stayed in pass protection. That allowed Aranda to dial up blitzes all the way to the final drive.

(YouTube)

Another way Auburn’s offense made it easier for LSU’s more compact defense was in the area of the run-pass option. Most of Auburn’s runs come out of a run-pass option, as the receivers run routes instead of straight ahead pass-blocking. Often times, Stidham carries the play out with a fake pass to one of those receivers.

But the RPO never was a true RPO in the second half. Auburn’s 13 pass attempts in the second half all appeared to be dropbacks or traditional play-actions. Stidham never made the read and threw it to a receiver, because, again, almost all of their routes were deeper than the normal quick-hitting RPO slants, hitches and screens.

That took away one of Auburn’s three options off the RPO. The second one, Stidham keeping the ball for a run, never happened. LSU knew Stidham wasn’t going to run, so it stopped accounting for him after a while in the second half. Danielson illustrates that here:

(YouTube)

So instead of having the triple option the RPO provides, Auburn only had one on these plays in the second half — a handoff up the middle. It did that over and over again, even when LSU put more bodies in the way. Auburn fans wondering if Stidham actually read the defense or just handed it off no matter what have legitimate arguments.

If Stidham would’ve kept the ball on the above play, it would’ve been Auburn’s only run to the right in the entire second half. Kam Martin, who had success on tosses and other outside runs earlier this season, never got a touch against LSU. Barrett only had the failed swing pass on the second-to-last drive.

Auburn’s longest play of the second half was a scramble by Stidham with less than a minute remaining. It went for 11 yards — the only snap that went for double-digits after halftime. Auburn had more success on a busted play than it had on any of its designed ones in the second half.

Auburn went from 131 first-half rushing yards to just 58 in the second half against LSU, which made things more difficult on Johnson and Pettway by stacking the box. But Auburn ran the ball on nearly 60 percent of its snaps after halftime, and it rarely deviated from the straight-ahead carry.

That stubborn offensive strategy made it easier for LSU to keep Auburn from threatening to score in the entire second half. LSU had enough time to show new fight in a comeback win, while Auburn fell into the old habits of recent losses.