AUBURN, Ala. — Through the first three weeks of the season, no FBS offense went backwards as often as the one from Auburn.
Fast-forward a few weeks later, and those same Tigers are No. 1 nationally in fewest negative plays (7) in the month of October. In a side-by-side comparison of September to October, Auburn jumped 120 spots in avoiding tackles for loss. Auburn didn’t even allow a single tackle for loss in its recent 56-3 rout of Arkansas.
During this three-game October stretch, Auburn has gone 3-0, outscoring opponents 152-24 and averaging 584 total yards per game. The Tigers have moved past their struggles from the early part of the season and are now one of the nation’s hottest offenses heading into a road trip at Ole Miss (7:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, SEC Network).
“We were having too many negative plays, and there’s a lot of variables that combine into having negative plays and so that’s really a tribute to the offensive staff,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said earlier this month. “They looked at it and looked at the areas we needed to improve and not do certain things and maybe do some other things.”
For Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who has been the lead play-caller in all three of those games, those variables are simplicity, speed and staying out of trouble.
“We’ve tried as a staff to do a better job of putting them in better position,” Lashlee said Wednesday night. “The other thing, I think, is we kind of simplified things and played a little faster, and I think sometimes as coaches we can try to call the right play all the time. Really we need to try to put them in the best position to be successful, but we got to call the plays and let them go play, which is why I think our tempo’s been better.”
The simplicity has been apparent in the play-calling and personnel decisions under Lashlee, who took over primary play-calling duties in the Week 4 win against LSU. Auburn cut down its number of formations and ran a much higher number of plays with either an H-back or a tight end.
When Auburn has gotten its tempo going in recent weeks, worn-out defenses have had a hard time defending a smaller set of play-calls — even when it seems they have the advantage over the Tigers.
“There’s been times we’ve made good plays in the looks that weren’t ideal, but we’re playing faster, our guys have confidence, and we’re not putting them in as many bad situations,” Lashlee said.
Another key area of improvement has come up front, where the Auburn offensive line has directly impacted the downturn in negative plays. In the month of October, Auburn has gone with a starting offensive line that features former left tackle Austin Golson at center and Darius James on the blind side.
According to right guard Braden Smith, Auburn has improved its communication in the last three weeks, even with the major changes to the first-choice line.
“I think just being assignment sound, everybody being on the right track,” Smith said. “Communication is definitely a big part of that, making sure everybody is on track and, I mean, it just goes with overall offensive execution.”
ESPN just said Auburn has run 64 plays tonight and none of them have gone for negative yards. An ENORMOUS reversal from early Sept.
— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) October 23, 2016
The better communication up front has led to an incredibly small number of penalties by the Auburn offense. Auburn hasn’t had an offensive foul called on it in three of its last four games.
When the Tigers can avoid getting well behind the chains, they have a much better success rate with those simpler plays that cut down the risk of negative yardage.
“Against Mississippi State we had two holds and were in first-and-20 twice,” Lashlee said. “Well, we converted one, we didn’t the other. It’s hard to do that, and so we’ve been able to stay on schedule, not just with negative plays, but not having a lot of penalties that offset that as well.”
Staying disciplined offensively will be even more crucial against Ole Miss, where the Tigers will be playing just their second road game of the season.
The road environment won’t be the only aspect to overcome in terms of avoiding negative plays. The Rebels defense — while rough against the run this season — has plenty of speed and aggression in terms of getting after the opposing backfield.
“They’re more of a blitzing defense,” Lashlee said. “Every now and then, when you’re that way, you give up a few big plays, but you also make some big plays. So it’s a little different than the last two weeks for us. We have to be able to execute at a high level and get hats on hats so we don’t have negative plays.”