Auburn – LSU Preview
Auburn and LSU face off in Death Valley on Saturday, September 19th. Auburn hasn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1999 and if they play like they have the last two games, their losing streak will certainly continue. Jeremy Johnson’s rocky start combined with injuries to key players and an overall lack of execution by the Auburn offense doesn’t bode well for Auburn.
LSU is coming off a big win against Mississippi State from the week prior and are looking to continue Auburn’s losing streak in Death Valley. The LSU Tigers still have some questions at quarterback but have one of the nation’s best running backs in Leonard Fournette to fall back on.
For Auburn, this may be one of the most important games they’ve played in Gus Malzahn’s time. Through two games this season they have not looked or played like a team that is anywhere near championship level but that could all change in Baton Rouge Saturday afternoon. At the very least, the Auburn-LSU game has always had a profound impact on each program’s season and Saturday’s game will likely be no different.
We’ll take a look at some of the things each team will have to do if they want to win as well as take a closer look at Auburn’s quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, with the aid of a little game film.
Jeremy Johnson’s performance must be better against LSU than it was against Louisville or Jacksonville State if Auburn wants to even have a chance at upsetting LSU at home. Through two games, one of which included FCS opponent Jacksonville State, Johnson has completed 32 of 53 passing attempts (60%) for 373 yards and has been picked off 5 times.
The majority of Johnson’s interceptions seem to stem from his problems recognizing zone coverage, which needs to be corrected very quickly if Auburn wants to continue winning games. Below we’ll take a look at is a video clip I borrowed from Al.com’s “film room” where we see one of Jeremy Johnson’s interceptions during the Auburn-Louisville game and a diagram of a base 3-4 Cover-2 defense (similar to what Louisville was running against Auburn).
*Note: The diagram is more for reference than anything else. I didn’t plan on going in depth with a 3-4 Cover-2 defense (we’d be here all day/night if I did). The only real difference between the defense in the diagram above and the defense that Louisville was running on the interception play is that Louisville substituted a nickelback for a linebacker.
In the video below we see that Louisville appears to be in a Cover-2 Nickel scheme and Auburn’s offense is playing with trips (3 wide receivers) to Johnson’s right, one wide receiver to his left and one running back in the back field. At the snap, the inside receiver on the trips side of the formation runs a vertical route which pulls both safeties into the secondary, the middle receiver runs a 5-6 yard out route, and the outside receiver runs a hook or curl route.
*Note: To view the video clip, just click the link titled “Jeremy Johnson INT.” The video should open in a new window. Just press the “play” button and let the video load (you may have to sit through a 30 second commercial) and the clip of Johnson’s interception starts around the 2:00 minute mark.
It’s important to watch the underneath defenders in this example because they’re playing textbook Cover-2 pattern matching. Prior to the snap, Johnson believes he’s looking at man-coverage…the outside defender (cornerback) is matched with the outside receiver, the middle defender (nickelback) is matched with the middle receiver, and the free safety is matched with the slot receiver.
When the ball is snapped the vertical route of the slot receiver is immediately recognized and the Nickelback only trails the slot receiver long enough to pass him off from his underneath zone into the secondary occupied by the safeties. Once the vertical route has been passed off into the secondary, the Nickelback falls back into his underneath zone and picks up the curl route by the outside receiver which is just in time to pick off Johnson’s pass. In this situation the safest throw for Johnson to make would have been the 5 yard out route thrown to the outside shoulder of his receiver.
The problem is that Johnson believed his receivers were in man-man coverage and if they had been in man coverage, his decision to throw the curl route would have likely resulted in a first down. Admittedly, I don’t know much at all about coverage recognition (especially not from a quarterback’s perspective) but just looking at the alignment of the defenders relative to the receivers should have triggered a red flag for Johnson tell him not to throw to the middle of the field.
To me it’s pretty simple (everything always is when you’re looking at a replay and not in a live situation). If the defense is playing with two deep safeties then the odds of your vertical route being open are very slim, unless of course there are multiple receivers running vertical routes, which was not the case and Jeremy Johnson knew that. The curl route is a bad idea because it brings your receiver into the middle of the field which allows a linebacker to drop back an aid the Nickelback (even though that didn’t happen it’s still a possibility).
Given the down, distance, and field position (3rd and 12 on the Louisville 36), Johnson should have been thinking about getting positive yards or throwing it away as the worst case scenario. If he throws the 5 yard out route for a completion it puts Auburn at the Louisville 31 yard line, which is in field goal range. These are the types of decisions Jeremy Johnson must make if Auburn wants to win Saturday in Baton Rouge.
Another area of concern for Auburn, and also a very uncharacteristic trait of a Gus Malzahn offense, is the lack of a dominating running game. Currently, Auburn ranks 65th nationally for rushing offense, which wouldn’t be as big of an issue if Auburn’s passing offense was ranked higher than 87th nationally. The bottom line is that something has to start working on Auburn’s offense or it will be a long afternoon in Death Valley for the Auburn Tigers.
Offensively, LSU is going to line up and hand the ball off to Leonard Fournette at least 75% of the time. Quarterback Brandon Harris only attempted 14 passes against Mississippi State last week and accumulated only 71 total passing yards. While LSU’s emphasis on the running game is by design, Harris has yet to prove that he can beat anyone throwing the football. His accuracy is sporadic and he gets rattled very easily from pressure. Despite his passing imperfections, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has added some zone read and option plays into the playbook and Harris seems to have improved from his previous outing against Auburn last season.
LSU’s receivers will pose a great challenge to Auburn’s secondary. Malachi Dupre and Travin Durel have the size and speed to run any vertical route in the playbook and can burn just about any defensive back in college football. If LSU’s O-line gives Harris the time and space, big plays off of play action will be a huge concern for Auburn’s defense.
Defensively, LSU’s front seven is championship caliber but they lack depth behind them (much like Auburn). First year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, had a good outing against Mississippi State’s running game but LSU’s secondary gave up some big plays. LSU’s front seven are a lot more active before the snap than in previous years under John Chavis, meaning they move and shift before the ball is snapped to create confusion for the offense. Given Jeremy Johnson’s issues with zone coverage and bad decisions when under pressure, I would expect Steele to have the defensive fronts shifting pre-snap throughout the entire game. This will likely cause some confusion and could lead to some turnovers if it’s not handled correctly by Johnson.
It’s going to take a monumental effort for Auburn’s defense to stop LSU’s rushing attack for the entire game and if Auburn’s offense can’t protect the football or establish a consistent ground game, things will get out of hand very quickly for Auburn. Having said that though, I believe Auburn will play better than they have in their first two games. I think the offensive play book will be expanded and I do think we see some improvement from Jeremy Johnson.
By all accounts Malzahn has been much more hands-on with the offense this week than in previous weeks (I can’t answer why he wasn’t “hands-on” with the offense before) and if Gus gets back to actually running the hurry up, no huddle then we may see more production on that side of the ball. As good as LSU’s defense is or can be, they lack depth across their front seven (much like Auburn) and a fast paced offense that starts clicking would wear them down.
Defensively I think Muschamp will try and force LSU quarterback, Brandon Harris, to win the game through the air by stacking as many defenders in the box as he can and containing Leonard Fournette. This, of course, will put Auburn’s defensive backs and safeties in man coverage against LSU’s receivers but as noted earlier, it’s not like Brandon Harris is winning any awards for his passing ability, which is what Muschamp is betting on.
Even though I believe Auburn will play better against LSU than they have in their first two games, I just don’t think they will play well enough to win in Death Valley. Auburn’s offensive line still hasn’t quite come together and Death Valley is a very unforgiving place for a quarterback who is trying to improve while on the job. I think Muschamp will have a good game plan for containing Fournette but with Carl Lawson being questionable I just don’t see Auburn’s D-line lasting all four quarters.
In the end, Auburn puts up a good fight and shows some improvement but doesn’t have the depth to close it out. Auburn’s losing streak in Death Valley continues…
LSU 31 – Auburn 23
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