Auburn-Ole Miss: How Rebels can knock Tigers out of playoff race

Auburn is damn good.

The No. 3 Tigers should be undefeated heading into their matchup against No. 4 Ole Miss this Saturday. Their only loss came to Mississippi State — a game in which turnovers on the first play of each of their first two possessions resulted in two immediate touchdowns for the Bulldogs. Before the blink of an eye, Auburn was down 21-0 and playing catch-up.

The Tigers still ran all over Mississippi State to the tune of 243 yards on the ground.  

Auburn has one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, ranking 11th nationally with 5.96 yards per attempt. QB Nick Marshall and his offense are at their best when they gash teams on the ground and are not forced to win through the air. Because the Tigers fell so far behind the Bulldogs, they were forced to throw the ball much more. Marshall averages 20 pass attempts per game in 2014, but in the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State he threw the ball almost twice that (35 attempts).

Marshall has a 59 percent completion percentage over the course of his career at Auburn, which is up from 57 percent at Garden City Community College. That Tiger can’t change his stripes when it comes to passing. If you force Marshall to throw a lot of passes, you have a chance of outscoring the Tigers; if you don’t you’re in trouble.

There’s been only one team who has slowed down Auburn’s run game in 2014: the feisty and disciplined Bill Snyder-coached Kansas State Wildcats.

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Auburn rushed the ball 45 times against K-State for only 143 yards (2.8 yards per carry). That’s the lowest total yards and yards per carry that any defense has held a Gus Malzahn-coached Auburn offense during his 21-game tenure as head coach.

If Ole Miss is going to beat the Tigers and keep pace in the playoff race, they have to shut down Auburn’s run game (or hope Auburn turns the ball over as much as it did against Mississippi State). That’s no easy task. Let’s take a look at what Auburn does so well and a couple of schemes that Kansas State used to tame the Tigers’ ground game. Ole Miss may want to follow the Wildcats’ lead.

Tigers destroy Cover 2

Don’t play Cover 2 against Auburn. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

The Tigers have 65 runs this season of 10-plus yards (ninth in the FBS), and many of them have come against Cover 2. While Cover 2 gives you a solid defense against the pass, it leaves you wide open to getting gashed by the run — especially against Auburn.

The Tigers have torched defenses with the run game against Cover 2. They have found enormous success with the zone read scheme with Marshall keeping the ball, or with an “O-play” with a crack-back block by the front-side WR on the linebacker and a back-side pulling guard who crumples the front-side cornerback. Both of these plays are devastating against Cover 2, because both safeties are 15-plus yards deep and late getting to the party, while in the box there is a hat for a hat. In other words, all men are blocked.

Instead of looking at both plays, I’ll pick the one that may be the lesser-known play — the O-play — and show why it is so successful for Auburn against Cover 2. Here’s how it’s drawn up:

As you can see in the next photo, the run has already begun and there are still no safeties.

There is a blocker for every defender in the box, and big Devonte Danzey (53) is building up a full head of steam to go crush the cornerback (circled in red) to open up a huge running lane for Cameron Artis-Payne (44).

In the next photo you can see the front-side blockers are all engaged, the running back already has the ball and is rolling downhill behind his pulling guard, and there are STILL NO SAFETIES.

Now look at this final photo. Everyone is blocked, the cornerback has taken a bow and is saying prayers as a 300-pound lineman is about to belly-flop on him, and Artis-Payne goes untouched for 34 yards before a safety finally shows up out of his deep Cover 2 area of responsibility for run support.

It’s been on tape too many times and teams need to know better by now: Playing Cover 2 against Auburn gets you torched. Whether it’s the O-play or the read option (which looks very similar to the photo above in the end against Cover 2), Auburn’s run game should not be messed with by playing Cover 2.

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Play Cover 4 instead

Kansas State played a heavy dose of Cover 4 (aka quarters coverage) instead, and it’s one of the big reasons why the Wildcats had success in slowing down the Tigers’ run game.

Like Cover 2, this scheme gives the defense a two-high safety look before the snap. Marshall is taught to make a simple read before running the read option: Is there one high (deep) safety or two?

If there are two high safeties — as Kansas State shows in the next photo — Marshall thinks there are only six defenders in the box to stop the run. Marshall is taught to keep the ball and run to the alley just outside of the crack block of his tightly aligned Receiver (80 here) — and outside of the box — where there should be a huge void and a lot of running room.

The advantage of quarters Coverage, however, is that while the safeties show the QB a two-high (or Cover 2) look before the snap, they make a flat-foot read instead of backpedaling at the snap of the ball (like they do in Cover 2). As soon as they read run in quarters coverage, the two safeties immediately add themselves into the run game.

So, instead of only having six defenders in the box (like in Cover 2), quarters Coverage allows the defense to actually have eight players in the box to stop the run, even though they show the QB two high safeties before the snap. Whether Marshall keeps the ball or hands it to the running back, the defense has them outnumbered.

In the next photo, you can see how quickly Kansas State’s safety – No. 22 Dante Barnett — was able to run the alley, add himself into the run fits and tackle Marshall for no gain. If this were Cover 2, Marshall would have run for a huge gain before the safety got a hand on him (like we saw in the previous play against South Carolina).

Also, take note of how physical cornerback Danzel McDaniel is with the wide receiver. McDaniel has been one of the most physical cornerbacks I’ve seen on tape in 2014, and being physical with Auburn’s excellent run-blocking wide receivers is a must if you’re going to slow down Auburn’s run game. 

Ole Miss has the personnel to be able to play Cover 4 effectively, and with linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche now out for the remainder of the season, they’ll need the extra help in the box to slow down Auburn’s run game.

Second option: use pressure

Playing with a single-high safety against Auburn is also a good option. But sitting back playing simple zone or man coverage is not the way to do it. Sending pressure to add an extra defender into the run fits has found success against Auburn’s run game, which Kansas State did often.

While some people think that blitzing is a tactic used only to defend the pass, it’s actually a highly effective way of shutting down the run game. Kansas State used a run-stopping blitz called “Nickel Dog 1” often and with great success against the Tigers. Here’s how it looks against the zone read:

You can see in the previous photo that the nickel blitzes off of the edge, one of the safeties slides down to cover the slot receiver man-to-man and the other safety drops back into the deep middle of the field. Both cornerbacks are in man-to-man coverage as well.

In the next photo, you can see the defensive end to the side of the nickel and both linebackers stunt away from the new extra defender (the nickel) filling all of the run gaps. There’s nowhere for the ball to go. Marshall handed the ball to Artis-Payne for no gain on this play, and the result would have been the same if he had kept it himself.

There are three main reasons a run-game pressure does not work: 1) Someone is undisciplined and doesn’t fit in their correct gap; 2) someone misses a tackle; 3) the offense passes the ball and the defenders in coverage get beat on a route. Against Auburn, Kansas State’s defenders were disciplined, they tackled well and cover men did not get beat in one-on-one coverage.

Ole Miss’ secondary has the personnel to play heavy doses of both quarters coverage and run-game pressures. They’d be wise to do so.

If Ole Miss plays a bunch of Cover 2 and makes some of the errors that almost every other team in 2014 has made, the Rebels are going to limp away from a second straight game of getting waxed on the ground.

If, however, they’re able to execute some of the tactics that Kansas State used with discipline and tackle well, they’ll slow down Auburn’s run game enough to force Marshall to throw more than 30 times and will likely win the game, thus putting a severe dent into Auburn’s playoff chances while elevating their own.

I’ll be making my first trip to Oxford and The Grove, and I can’t wait to watch the Ole Miss Land Sharks — one of the best defenses in college football — face one of the best run games in all of football.

Coy Wire played college football at Stanford before a nine-year NFL career in Buffalo and Atlanta. He’s currently a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes for FOXsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.