Ferg’s Film Room: The ‘3 Es’ that propelled Auburn to a dominant win vs. Mississippi State

AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome back to Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deeper breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.

For the second week in a row, Auburn crushed its SEC matchup on both sides of the ball. This time, it came against what was a ranked Mississippi State team that routed rival LSU two weeks ago.

But Saturday night, Auburn proved why it’s a class above everyone outside of Alabama in the SEC West in a 49-10 win over Mississippi State. Gus Malzahn’s Tigers turned a game that closed with just a 7-point spread into a 39-point beatdown.

MORE:  Auburn football opens as 3-touchdown home favorite over Ole Miss

How did it happen? Let’s break it all down into three categories, which I’m calling the “3 Es” of the game — explosion, efficiency and execution. In those areas, Auburn put together its most impressive performance of the season, and one that looks like it could spark a real run through October.

Auburn football-Auburn Tigers-Auburn-Darius Slayton
Auburn wide receiver Darius Slayton made a great play to catch a gadget pass from quarterback Jarrett Stidham. (Michael Chang/Getty Images)

Explosion: Doing more with less

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly is one of the best college football minds in America. Each week, Connelly breaks down every game into an advanced “five factors” box score — the five biggest components of winning in college football.

Take a look at the box score for Auburn and Mississippi State. The final three factors of success rate, average field position and turnover margin aren’t far apart at all. But the biggest differences came down to yards per play and finishing drives. Let’s highlight that first one, because it has everything to do with explosiveness.

Auburn averaged 4.9 more yards per snap than Mississippi State, which, according to Connelly, was the third-highest difference in FBS football this weekend. That’s a monstrous gap, and it explains how an Auburn team that ran 28 fewer plays than Mississippi State could still win by 39 points.

Mississippi State only had five plays Saturday that went for more than 10 yards. Auburn had 10 of them, including seven that went for 20-plus yards. In that category, Mississippi State slipped to just three — a busted play that led to its only touchdown, and two second-half deep passes that were completed when the game was already out of reach.

For Auburn, these types of plays made all the difference. The Tigers had enough time to hit those big gains, and their defense did an excellent job of keeping Mississippi State from countering. Mississippi State didn’t have a run longer than 16 yards, and Auburn had three of 30-plus yards.

This started on the first drive of the game, when Kerryon Johnson broke free for 59 yards. A healthier Johnson would’ve taken this to the house and extended that yards per play gap even further, but Johnson wisely decided to slow things down and save his legs after Braden Smith manhandled his opponent up front.

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Two drives later, Jarrett Stidham hit his first big play downfield when he hit a gadget reverse pass out of the wildcat formation to Darius Slayton for 49 yards.

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Three weeks ago against Clemson, Auburn tried to go for these home run balls but could never keep the pocket clean enough. Although this was an underthrown pass by Stidham, the difference came down to the improved protection. On this slow-developing play, Stidham had more than enough time to deliver a shot downfield against zero coverage — a great play call by offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.

The confidence Auburn had in its offensive line was evident throughout the night. In the third quarter, with Stidham in the shadow of his own goal posts, Lindsey decided to call for another deep ball. Again, the protection was there, and Stidham hit Eli Stove in what was a high-pressure situation.

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We’ll get to Stidham’s longest touchdown pass of the night later.

Three plays later, Auburn had a run longer than any one Mississippi State would have all night by going right back to Stove. Although the running plays on standard downs left a lot to be desired, Auburn made up for it with explosive plays like this one. Stove had the speed to beat his first man, and he got enough on the edge thanks to a nice block from Chandler Cox.

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Mississippi State tried to hit Auburn back for big plays when the game was still within reach, but they never came, outside of a 45-yard catch and run caused by a misplay by reserve linebacker Richard McBryde and a missed tackle by Tray Matthews.

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While Mississippi State’s biggest play came off of a short pass featuring a few Auburn miscues, its tries for chunk yardage fell flat. The Bulldogs were obviously trying to run something deep right after a Kamryn Pettway fumble in the third quarter. But they decided to pull a blocker onto Jeff Holland, and it was a grave mistake. “Sensei Mud” is just too fast off the edge.

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That sums up Mississippi State’s chances at hitting long plays against Auburn. The run defense kept most everything in front of it, and the pass rush wouldn’t give the Bulldogs nearly enough time to try something deep. That separation in the trenches made all the difference.

Efficiency: Massive gaps on the ‘money downs’

Auburn took care of business on the “money downs” — third and fourth downs — against Mississippi State. While the Tigers moved the chains, the Bulldogs had a hard time doing anything on those key plays. And that dominance went beyond the basic efficiency stat:

  • third- and fourth-down conversions (combined)
    • Auburn: 7-13 (53.8 percent)
    • MSU: 9-27 (33.3 percent)
  • third-down passing
    • Auburn: 4-7 for 102 yards (14.6 yards per attempt)
    • MSU: 3-13 for 16 yards (1.2 yards per attempt)
  • third- and fourth-down passes defended (breakups + interceptions) 
    • Auburn: 11
    • MSU: 0
  • third- and fourth-down quarterback “effects” (sacks + hurries)
    • Auburn: 7
    • MSU: 2
  • Average third-down distance to go
    • Auburn: 3.2
    • MSU: 6.0

Auburn was calm and collected when it got into third-down situations against Mississippi State. A lot of that had to do with the Tigers’ average distance. Whenever Mississippi State would normally expect runs or quick passes, Auburn decided to go deep on some third-and-short plays.

Three of the Tigers’ five longest pass plays came on third-and-short — the reverse pass to Slayton, an 18-yard wheel to Stove, and a 52-yarder early in the fourth quarter to Kyle Davis.

On that last play, Auburn had Mississippi State’s young defensive backs anticipating a quick pass in the stack to Ryan Davis. Mississippi State sent a linebacker on a blitz, so that area would be open. Instead, Kyle Davis went deep as Ryan Davis drew both defenders to the inside. Johnson picked up the blitz, and Stidham once again had enough time to fire.

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That’s the advantage of having more third-and-manageable situations then third-and-long, which Mississippi State found itself in quite a bit against Auburn. It even allowed backup quarterback Malik Willis to take off for his first career touchdown in the final minutes.

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On defense, Auburn’s secondary had active hands all night and played physical football. That was most evident on third and fourth downs, when both of its interceptions and nine of its 12 pass breakups happened.

With the defensive line causing mayhem up front — more than half of its “quarterback effects” came on these money downs — Nick Fitzgerald didn’t have much time to operate. That led to quick passes in tight windows, and Auburn’s defensive backs strong-armed their way through time and time again.

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On both interceptions, Auburn forced Fitzgerald into some less than stellar passes, and the Tigers took advantage with heads-up plays by Matthews and Javaris Davis.

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Execution: Simply making more plays

On top of its advantages in explosion and efficiency, Auburn simply played a cleaner game of football than Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ mistakes made a lopsided game even worse — their turnovers were more costly, their lost battles on 1-on-1 passes loomed large, and their penalties set them back even further.

That last bit shone through with seven false-start penalties. The threat of Auburn’s pass rush, along with a rowdy and slightly short of sellout crowd, caused all kinds of problems up front for MSU. Holland’s matchups on the edges had four of the seven false starts.

In the passing game, Auburn was clean. It didn’t have a single drop, and the routes were much more crisp. The most notable example came on Stidham’s touchdown pass to Will Hastings.

On that play, Auburn dialed up the agile Hastings on a deeper double move, much like the one he ran against Missouri. This time, Stidham delivered a better ball. Hastings got the matchup with the safety he wanted and caught him leaning with a pair of quick cuts.

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The Tigers didn’t let up on the shorter plays, either. While he missed an opportunity to spring a touchdown in the third quarter on a Johnson screen, Kyle Davis made one happen with tough blocking on the outside for Ryan Davis’ touchdown.

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On the defensive side, Auburn outexecuted Mississippi State from front to back. The Tigers snuffed out several potential good plays by winning their individual matchups on the outside and in the trenches.

While Derrick Brown had only 3 tackles and no real huge plays in the game, he made things happen for his teammates. After Mississippi State started the second half in a solid rushing rhythm with back-to-back 8-yard runs, Brown erased that by pushing his man several yards in the backfield, giving Aeris Williams nowhere to go.

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In the secondary, Auburn was more physical than Mississippi State, and the defensive backs played with a nose for the football. Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean did outstanding jobs of jumping passes and using their impressive size to their advantage with physical hits and breakups.

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Put all that together, and Auburn had a perfect formula for beating a second consecutive SEC opponent in style Saturday night. There are still some areas for improvement, especially in the running department. But this team is starting to look like the balanced contender that was expected in the offseason.

The post Ferg’s Film Room: The ‘3 Es’ that propelled Auburn to a dominant win vs. Mississippi State appeared first on SEC Country.

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