StatTiger: Malzahn Making Johnson Whine

Stuart Carter writes about Gus Malzahn's success as Auburn's offensive coordinator.

By definition the word offense means an attack or assault. When it comes to football, it's the players who make up the unit responsible for scoring points against the opponent.

In contrast defense is defined as the act of defending against an attack or the means and method of protecting something. In the case of football, defense is the group responsible for preventing the opponent from scoring.

As simple as it might sound history has shown the roles of both units are sometimes reversed. There are defensive coordinators who scheme to become the aggressor, often attacking the opponent with exotic blitzes. Often when this occurs we have seen the opposing offensive coordinator become conservative, basically taking what the opponent will allow in fear of making a costly mistake.

Aggressive coordinators, whether it is on offense or defense, scheme to dictate the tempo and flow of the game. By going on the offensive, it develops the mindset of being in control of not only the game, but more importantly, the opponent.

Ellis Johnson

Recently, University of South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson commented on no huddle styled offenses ruining the game of football. The premise to his claim was that the game has become more about a team's ability to quickly signal in its play rather than the basic fundamentals of the game itself. Though there is some truth to the offense having a slight advantage in controlling the tempo when the ball is snapped, the game still comes down to the basic fundamentals of blocking and tackling. An offense that operates at a fast tempo still requires the players involved to adhere to the basic concepts of execution.

The offensive line has to block well, the receivers still must run precise routes and eventually catch the football. Running backs require good vision, instincts and ball control while the quarterbacks still require solid mechanics and sound decision-making when attempting a pass. In fact, more control is necessary anytime you do anything at a rapid pace, especially in the game of football.

When it comes to Auburn's innovative offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, the media tends to focus on the speed of his offense and what they perceive as "trick" plays. Rarely do you hear the media speak of his ability to call plays or adjust his offense during the course of a game.

Gus Malzahn

During Auburn's national championship season, South Carolina's Johnson was not the only opposing coach who tried to claim that Malzahn ran some type of "gimmick" offense. It actually became quite comical to hear some of the excuses and comments made during postgame press conferences by the opposing coaches when commenting on Auburn's offensive success.

Two years ago when Malzahn arrived at Auburn there were those under the impression his offense would not work in the Southeastern Conference. Two years later Auburn had the best run offense and the most efficient pass offense in the Southeastern Conference. Whether or not opposing coaches respect him, Malzahn's offense was the centerpiece of Auburn's 2010 national championship season and no team was able to control it for more than two quarters.

When it comes to "taking what the opponent will allow," Malzahn has taken the concept to an entirely new level. Not only will he take what the opponent will allow, he will force the opponent to give him what he wants. In a nutshell, this is the method to his madness and the primary reason he has been so successful since arriving at the collegiate level in 2006.

He will take advantage of space for his perimeter plays and when the space is not there, he creates it with shifts, motion and misdirection. His field recognition is uncanny and his ability to interrupt what an opposing player or defense is likely to do makes him one of the best "play callers" in college football.

Malzahn's offense is explosive not just because of speed and tempo, but because the coordinator is very good at recognizing tendencies shown by the opposing defense. There are no "trick" plays in his playbook; just plays he believes will take advantage of an anticipated weakness in the opposing defense. He simply puts his skill players in position to make plays by constructing his offense around the attributes of his personnel and not his personnel around his schemes.

Most defensive players rely on recognition, instinct and the simple desire to target the ball carrier. With this in mind Malzahn will design plays to take advantage of these traits. Over the past two seasons I have dissected more than 200 offensive plays executed by the Auburn offense. Last year alone I saw five different variations of the wildcat set alone. Coach Malzahn knows the importance of how a defense might react to a presnap look so he will adjust his formations accordingly to achieve the best possible matchup.

From film study and in game observations, Malzahn also recognizes the tendencies of certain defensive players and how they will react to certain situations. Based on these prior instincts and reactions shown by the defense, Malzahn will adjust or tweak a pass route anticipating the same reaction in order to create a big play opportunity for his offense. It now becomes a chess match of anticipating the opponent's next move and Malzahn tends to win more of these battles than he loses.

How often have you heard the media commenting on Malzahn's goal to reach 80 plays during the course of a game? In reality he has met that goal three times out of 27 games the past two seasons, including once during Auburn's championship season. Last year all the FBS offenses combined averaged 68.3 snaps per game. The 2010 Auburn offense averaged 67.7 plays per game, a long way from the 80-play average so commonly mentioned.

Malzahn once commented that the most important part of his job was making sure he had the right play called for the particular scheme called by the defense. All the speed in the world is not going to make a poorly called play any better. He is a stickler for execution and details, which is evident by his success as a coordinator. He believes in offensive balance and the ability to stretch a defense horizontally as well as vertically. Malzahn knows that if he can maintain balance and spread the football around to a variety of players the more difficult it will be for the opposing defense to stop his offense.

Freshman Michael Dyer, accepting the BCS Championship Game Offensive MVP award, set an Auburn freshman rushing record last season, breaking the mark set by Bo Jackson in 1982.

From 1970-2010 there have been only 80 offenses in major college football to average 500 yards per game and the 2010 Auburn offense was seven yards shy of making it 81. Of those 80 teams, 60 of them have come since 1990, which means there has been more of an emphasis placed on offense over the past two decades, mainly because of rule changes created to bring about more offense.

There were only eight teams to average 500 yards per game during the entire decade of the 1970s and six teams to do so during the 2010 season alone. Defense might win championships, but Auburn is 218-4-0 since 1951 when the Tigers score at least 30 points, which equates to 54 wins for every loss.

Let the pundits and opposing coaches say what they will about Malzahn's offense because all the talk in the world will not slow his attack much less stop it. Great coaches are always looking for any advantage they can find, making Auburn very fortunate to have one of the coaches on the cutting edge of offensive football. Some coaches generate excuses after a loss and others work diligently to become more efficient at their craft. There should be no doubt which category Malzahn falls under.


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