AUBURN, Ala. — As Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn said last weekend, the Tigers’ current bye week is an important time for evaluation heading into the final month of the season.
This week, SEC Country will do the same for Auburn, breaking down the first eight games of the season in four categories — passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense and rushing defense. What do the numbers say about Auburn heading into a crucial November?
Auburn took a step forward in terms of the passing game this season. And while the numbers haven’t been as kind to the Tigers’ usually dominant rushing attack, they’ve fought through plenty of injuries to put up impressive touchdowns and big plays through the first two months.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Auburn’s rushing stats from the first eight games of 2017 and the entire 2016 season, along with individual stat breakdowns for the ball carriers. After that, it’s time to jump into four major positives and four major negatives for this area of Auburn’s season so far.
2017 Auburn football team rushing stats
|CATEGORY||2017 (FBS/SEC RANK)||2016 (FBS RANK)|
|Yards/attempt||5.11 (24th/4th)||5.47 (17th)|
|Yards/game||237.75 (21st/4th)||271.31 (6th)|
|Attempts/game||46.50 (15th/3rd)||49.62 (8th)|
|TD||24 in 8 games (11th/2nd)||33 in 13 games (16th)|
|Adj. line yards*||69th||6th|
|10+ yard rushes||47 (27th/5th)||110 (8th)|
|20+ yard rushes||19 (13th/3rd)||30 (22nd)|
|30+ yard rushes||13 (5th/1st)||17th (11th)|
*advanced stats courtesy of Football Study Hall
2017 Auburn football individual rushing stats
Rushing offense positives
Kerryon Johnson: When he went down with a hamstring injury in the second quarter of the season, there was plenty of concern for the junior running back, who has struggled with several injuries during his Auburn career. But Johnson bounced back in a tremendous way, rushing for 11 touchdowns in just three games and picking up his first career 200-yard performance. He’s tied for the national lead in touchdowns with 14 despite missing two whole games, and he ranks eighth in yards per game.
Scoring: Even with a couple of rough games, Auburn’s offense is averaging 5 more points per game than it did last season. Since Jarrett Stidham has accounted for only 10 total touchdowns, a lot of the scoring has come down to the running game. Johnson’s hot streak, along with Kamryn Pettway’s solid showings in the red zone, have played big roles in Auburn’s higher-scoring routs during SEC play. Auburn averaged about 2.5 rushing touchdowns per game last season. It’s now averaging 3 per game with a month to go.
Explosive plays: While the yards-per-attempt metric is down for Auburn — more on that later — the Tigers are generating a good number of long runs. Auburn is among the best in college football this season in runs of 30-, 40- and 50-plus yards. That’s an impressive considering Johnson and Pettway haven’t been truly 100 percent this season due to injuries. But both of them, along with players such as Kam Martin and Malik Willis, have hit defenses for long touchdowns.
Malik Willis: Auburn’s freshman quarterback jumped all the way to No. 2 on the depth chart and he’s shined in garbage time. Willis is averaging 13 yards per carry as a dangerous late-game weapon on the zone read. His first career touchdown went for 67 yards against a Mississippi State team that currently sits 5-2. With the way he runs, the Tigers could benefit from using Willis in certain packages down the stretch.
Rushing offense problems
Injuries, injuries, injuries: Johnson missed the majority of three games this season with a hamstring injury. Pettway has dealt with numerous injuries and only put up 9 carries for 13 yards in a four-week span. Martin suffered an ankle injury. It’s no secret the lower numbers this season have a lot to do with the health of the top running backs, and the off week will help the Tigers recover. Every takeaway from this rushing attack should be viewed through this lens.
The rotation, or lack thereof: Pettway was the only running back to get carries in back-to-back weeks. Johnson has had 20-plus carries in each of the last four games. Meanwhile, Martin, Malik Miller and Devan Barrett have mostly been relegated to getting carries in lopsided games. Martin has been the most bizarre case, as he’s averaging 8 yards per carry in sporadic duty. Auburn doesn’t go much deeper than two running backs under Malzahn. But when the top two weren’t healthy, the backups still didn’t get quality touches.
Line play: Auburn’s offensive line, which also has been hampered by injuries, hasn’t been its usual run-mashing self. After ranking sixth nationally in adjusted line yards last season — an advanced stat that shows how much the offensive line is responsible for the rushing attack — it has dropped to 69th. It’s been tough sledding up front for Auburn, especially with injuries across the line. The Tigers blocked better against Arkansas, and they need that to carry into November.
Struggles against the strong: Against FBS teams with winning records — Clemson, Mississippi State and LSU — Auburn is averaging only 3.77 yards per carry. A chunk of that production was influenced by the high sack numbers against Clemson, as college football doesn’t count sack yardage as negative passing yardage like the NFL. But Auburn had less than 200 rushing yards against LSU, which had struggled against the run heading into that weekend. The Tigers have to find a way to run well against quality opponents, because their last three SEC opponents are definitely at that level.