Success On First Down A Key For the Auburn Football Tigers

Auburn's lack of success on first down as a big reason for the struggles in the season opener on offense.

Kerryon Johnson (above) led the Tigers in rushing on opening night.

Auburn, Ala.--While the lack of execution surrounding the quarterback shuffle has been the focus since the Auburn Tigers walked off the field Saturday night in a loss to Clemson, perhaps just as important for Gus Malzahn’s group moving forward is shoring up the offensive line and the running game.

Being able to run the football is a key to establishing a fast tempo in Auburn’s offense, something offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said starts with being successful on first down.

We’ve got to be better on early downs to help our third down situation,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got to be able to throw and catch the ball and have better balance. The second half you saw parts of it--48 plays and around 250 yards is a pretty good half against anybody, especially a top five team. We just have to finish drives.”

One of the keys for this Auburn team is going to be throwing the football on first down to back the defense away from line of scrimmage and give Kerryon Johnson, Kamryn Pettway and others room to run the football. That was a big issue against Clemson and it showed in the numbers.

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Kamryn Pettway is a redshirt sophomore who has returned to tailback after playing fullback last season.

Overall, Auburn ran the ball 21 times for 81 yards on first down plays against Clemson with two of those likely called pass plays that turned into runs for Sean White. Of those 21 plays five went for a total of 64 yards rushing by Johnson with carries of 12, 11, 14, 18 and nine yards--all in the second half.

That shows that the offensive line was doing a much better job of making some room for the running back, but when you factor in that 27 of those yards came in a two-minute situation late in the contest it sheds a little more light on the problem.

With Johnson’s five carries accounted for that leaves 15 more runs for the Auburn offense on first down. Those plays generated a total of just 17 yards, meaning that roughly two/thirds of the night the Tigers were in second and long situations. That puts a lot of pressure on an offense and in particular an offensive line working together for the first time.

While the offensive line had its share of problems, Malzahn said he saw some improvements from them throughout the game and hopes that continues this week against Arkansas State.

We made some mistakes early, especially in the first half,” the head coach said. “We had a new center starting for the first time and we moved our center to left tackle. We also had a new starter at right tackle. Clemson did some things that are a little bit different than we thought so there was a little bit of adjustment.

“That is one of our goals is to improve greatly from week one to week two,” he added. “That is a group that it was the first time to really play together in the positions they are in as starters. We expect them to play better. We need to be able to run the football.”

That means picking up where Johnson left off and adding big sophomore Kamryn Pettway to the mix. A player the Tigers are counting on to provide some punch running the football, Pettway only played a handful of snaps against Clemson last Saturday night, but Malzahn said that will change this week.

“Kam Pettway will have more of a role this game,” the head coach noted. “The good thing is we learned a lot about Kerryon. The question that everyone asked quite a bit was can he hold up and be durable and I think it was a very physical game. He earned a lot of his yards after contact, which I thought was very good. He protected the football so I was very encouraged by him. Pettway will have a bigger role this game.”

This could also be the week that quarterback John Franklin gets an opportunity to show what he can do running the football. Strictly handing off in the opener, Franklin getting loose running the ball this Saturday could be a game changer for the Auburn offense moving forward. But it starts with the first offense having success on the ground said the head coach.

"We're a run/play-action team," Malzahn said. "Obviously, we've got to run the football. That's probably the biggest disappointment from my standpoint was the rushing yards. We're a run/play-action team and we've got to run the football better than we did."

Kickoff for Saturday’s game against Arkansas State is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and the game can be seen on SEC Network.

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