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Is an up-tempo, pass-heavy attack the answer for Auburn’s stagnant offense?

October 12, 2018

AUBURN — Chip Lindsey didn’t sound like a coordinator whose offense had mustered only 304 total yards and nine points in a two-touchdown loss fewer than 24 hours ago.

Auburn fans were still fuming. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, at the podium just a few minutes before Lindsey, called the defense’s performance in a 23-9 loss to Mississippi State in Starkville “unacceptable.” On Tuesday, head coach Gus Malzahn would acknowledge frustrations and take responsibility for them.

Lindsey chose instead to focus on the positive. Believe it or not, there might be one.

“I was really pleased with how our guys finished the second half,” Auburn’s offensive coordinator said Sunday night. “We got in pace several times. We were able to get the ball in the perimeter, hit some runs, especially in pace, and I really liked the way our guys responded. Even as frustrating as it was early, at the end, when we blocked the field goal, we had an opportunity to go and really win the game or at least tie the game, and we didn’t get it done.

“But, at the same time, I think we made some strides. I think we’ve got some momentum, I hope, built for this week. I feel really good about the way we finished.”

The No. 21-ranked Tigers (4-2, 1-2 SEC), who host Tennessee (2-3, 0-2) at Jordan-Hare Stadium at 11 a.m. on Saturday, have spent the first half of the season searching for an offensive identity. It’s possible they may have found at least the framework of one over the final two quarters at Davis Wade Stadium.

After mustering just 79 yards on 23 plays in the first half, Auburn came out of the locker room with a completely different game plan. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who attempted just 10 passes before halftime, hit Ryan Davis for 42 yards down the right sideline on the offense’s first play of the third quarter, then dropped back to throw 30 more times before the game ended. The Tigers called only five designed run plays.

The effect was twofold: Getting the ball out of Stidham’s hands and into those of the team’s playmakers allowed Auburn to get into the pace and tempo it likes to employ on offense — every second-half possession was at least six plays, and none lasted longer than 2:22 — and that seemed to open up a little bit more running room on the edges of the defense.

The result was 225 yards on 36 plays, which was almost identical to Mississippi State’s second-half totals. Stidham completed 13 of 28 passes for 176 yards. After failing to convert on all six of its third-down attempts in the first half — a source of great struggle this season — Auburn hit on 3 of 8 in the second half.

“When you get positive plays, you get in a rhythm and guys make plays all around,” said Davis, who caught eight passes for 91 yards. “Just getting ball out of Jarrett’s hand — a lot of teams have been trying to pressure us and stuff like that — so it’s just us getting it out and us just trying to make plays, trying to get positive yards. Definitely. When everybody was throwing and catching, it’s definitely a lot easier to move the ball.”

Obviously, Auburn still hasn’t solved its problems on offense. It ranks 116th nationally averaging 323.6 yards and 99th scoring 21.8 points in five games against FBS opponents (which excludes a 567-yard, 63-point effort in a rout of FCS Alabama State). It’s third-down conversion rate of 32.5 percent ranks 118th nationally.

Four of those five second-half drives reached the Mississippi State 20-yard line, but the Tigers scored only six points. Nine plays run inside the red zone — a rush for no gain, seven incompletions (including a drop by Slayton in the back of the end zone) and a sack — netted minus-11 yards. Running back JaTarvious Whitlow fumbled the ball before it crossed the plane at the end of his 41-yard carry, taking what could have been a 42-yard touchdown off the scoreboard.

But in a season that so far has been devoid of many offensive highlights, those two quarters could have represented at least a step toward Auburn finding the rhythm that has eluded it through six games.

“When you’re able to look back at half the season and you’re able to step back and evaluate where you’re at and all that, I think you’ve got to be open to whatever can help moving forward,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “How well does the defense match up, special teams, field position — all those things are a factor. I know our offensive coaches will have good plans the second half of the season as far our personnel.”

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