Another Look At Auburn's Offensive Meltdown

Columnist Phillip Marshall looks for reasons why Auburn was blanked by the visitors from USC on opening day.

For the last three days, I have been trying to understand just what happened to Auburn's offense in Saturday's 23-0 loss to Southern California. Though it is tempting to jump to conclusions, I decided to talk to those who would know--the coaches and the players. I'll reveal no names here, but I will share what I have gathered from asking numerous questions.

More than anything else, the biggest problem with the offense on Saturday was lack of success on first down. USC's defense was remarkably effective in forcing Auburn into second-and-long and third-and-long situations. I came away from the game thinking the Tigers had tried to throw too often on first down. Actually, that wasn't the case. They had 21 first-down plays and ran 15 times, though one of those was a sack and four others were Campbell runs. It didn't seem to matter. Nothing worked. An amazing 16 of those 21 first-down snaps resulted in incomplete passes, no gain or lost yardage. For the day on first down, the Tigers netted minus-1 yard. Carnell Williams had five first-down carries for four yards. Ronnie Brown had five for 11 yards.

It's easy enough to see that was a large part of the problem. The next question is what caused it. The easy answer is the offensive line was dominated by USC's defensive line. On top of their physical prowess, the Trojans played a scheme Auburn coaches and players had not seen before. It was no surprise to anyone that USC's linemen slanted on almost every play, but they did in a way offensive coordinator Hugh Nall said he'd not seen in 20 years of coaching. Here is the ugly play-by-play for Auburn's first downs: Williams minus 2; Brown 1; incomplete pass; Campbell minus 3; Williams 0; Williams 6; Williams 0; incomplete pass; Brown minus 1; Brown 5; incomplete pass; incomplete pass; Campbell 2; incomplete pass; Campbell minus 2; incomplete pass; Campbell minus 9 (sack); Brown 0; Brown 6; Campbell minus 2; Williams 0

Perhaps the most-asked question is why Williams and Brown combined for only 20 carries? Put simply, the Trojans dared the Tigers to pass and they did. That resulted in Campbell taking a fearsome beating. Two crucial dropped passes didn't help matters any. Was taking to the air the wisest course of action? The fact that the Tigers were shut out would seem to pretty clearly indicate that it wasn't. This is a team built to run and that's what it will have to do to win.

Another popular question has been why fullback Brandon Johnson wasn't used more. Auburn coaches consider the one-back set with two tight ends an integral part of their offense. It forces the defense to be balanced and not overload to the strong side. The extra tight end can go in motion and block like a fullback or go into a pass pattern. There will be games, they say, when Johnson plays significantly more than he did against USC. It depends on what the opponent does on defense. The bottom line is nothing Auburn tried on offense against USC worked. It wasn't from lack of effort by the players or lack of preparation by the coaches. They thought they had a good plan. They didn't.

Would it have been different if Bobby Petrino, who left after one year to become head coach at Louisville, had still been the offensive coordinator? We'll never know, but there can be little doubt he was missed.

Auburn's coaches and players have turned their focus forward, as they must do. This season of high expectations still has at least 11 games remaining. Those who are worried that the running game will again be kept in the starting blocks can put their minds at ease. It's not going to happen. Every Auburn coach understands that it is on the ground this team must usually travel. The first opportunity to rebound from a discouraging start will be Saturday against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Those who expect the Yellow Jackets to roll over and be routed aren't being realistic. I look for a close, hard-fought game.

Will there be improvement on offense for Auburn? No doubt about it. Will it be enough to beat Georgia Tech? Probably. Will it be enough to meet the high expectations of this season? We shall see.


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