Auburn – Mississippi State Preview
Auburn – Mississippi State Preview
If you’re a believer in “must win” games then this is probably a “must win” game for Gus Malzhan and Auburn. Nothing seems to be working for Auburn on either side of the ball and, the offensive woes specifically, prompted Malzahn to make a quarterback change on Tuesday. Redshirt freshman Sean White will take his first snap in a college football game on Saturday September 26th in Jordan Hare Stadium.
Mississippi State is coming off a disappointing loss to LSU a couple of weeks ago and are looking to rebound with a conference win. There’s no question as to who will lead the Bulldogs into Jordan Hare Stadium. At 6’4” and 230 lbs, Dak Prescott is a household name for college football fans. The Bulldog defense lost quite a few key players after last season but brought back former defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, in hopes of making the defense a formidable group again.
Can Sean White take over Auburn’s offense and lead the Tigers to a much needed win? Undoubtedly, that’s the most interesting story line in Saturday’s game. To get an idea of what we may see we’ll take a look at the Mississippi State defense and the scheme they’ll use against Auburn.
For the last few years most of the talk regarding MSU has been about their offense, and for good reason. Dak Prescott is one the most athletic QBs in the country and can burn defenses with legs as well as his arm. The bulldog’s offensive production with Prescott at the helm has been well documented and I don’t think I really need to go into much detail about it. Given the fact that Auburn will starting redshirt freshman QB Sean White Saturday night, I think we should focus more on the Bulldog’s defense and their coordinator, Manny Diaz.
Diaz is known for his aggressive defenses that utilize unconventional fronts and blitz schemes. I fully expect Diaz to throw as much at Sean White as he can in an effort to pressure and confuse him in his first start. Don’t be surprised to see both odd and even fronts (3-4, 4-3, 3-3-5, etc) along with an assortment of zone blitzes early and often from Diaz
As multiple as he likes to be up front and with as many blitz combinations as he can think of, Diaz prefers to use a particular style of defense when facing fast paced, run first offenses. Below we’ll take a look at what’s known as the “2-read defense” that he’s used for most of his career to stop the running game of offenses that base out of multiple receiver sets.
The 2-read defense is a form of Cover-4 that places run forcing responsibilities on the cornerbacks and linebackers and allows the safeties to flow behind them for cleanup if necessary or remain in coverage. Basically, this defense is the safest way to create and maintain a nine man front while still providing two safeties over the top.
Looking at the diagram above we can see the defense is in a nickel package and the offense is in a 4 wide receiver (2×2), one back, shotgun set. Keep in mind that despite the 4 wide receiver set from the offense, the defense is expecting run. The offense is banking on the linebackers dropping out of the box and into coverage leaving running lanes open.
The key reads here for the defense are the inside receivers (Y and H). At the snap the Nickelback (N) and will-linebacker (W) attempt to re-route or disrupt the receivers’ route distributions and then aggressively set the edge to provide run support. The safeties (F and $) are also reading the inside receivers. If the receivers continue their routes beyond the linebackers they are picked up in coverage by the safeties. If the receivers engage the linebackers in blocking then the safeties fall into the box to provide run support.
This style of defense is fairly aggressive and requires the defensive backfield to be able to cover and stay with their receiver in man-man coverage. It also requires linebackers to have lateral speed because they’ll have to be able to fill gaps from sideline to sideline. While the 2-read defense may be relatively simple in concept it can be executed from any front or base defense and it’s also lends itself to zone blitzing, which Diaz is quite fond of.
Let’s take a look at the 2-read defense applied against a shotgun, trips set.
We can see that the linebackers have shifted to the trips side of the formation and just as in the previous example they still have run forcing responsibilities. In this particular example the defensive end moves inside to play the b-gap and the mike-linebacker takes the edge. On the backside of the play the cornerback has run forcing responsibilities with the free safety back for coverage.
So, how does the 2-read defense apply to Auburn’s offense?
It’s important to notice that in both examples there is a free linebacker that can be used as a fifth rusher or can drop into coverage. With Auburn starting a redshirt freshman QB on Saturday I would expect Diaz to utilize his free defenders to blitz. However, in obvious passing situations Diaz is known for blitzing with only 3 or 4 defenders and dropping 7 or 8 into coverage in order to double up on hot receivers and create confusion for the quarterback.
Not only is Diaz unconventional in his fronts and blitzing schemes but he’s also unconventional in his philosophy on when to pressure a QB. Conventional wisdom from guys like Nick Saban tells us to play sound defense on 1st and 2nd down in order to bring pressure on 3rd down. Manny Diaz believes the opposite, bringing pressure on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down. His thinking is simple…if you put an offense behind the chains on 1st and 2nd down then the defense will dictate the game. By doing this he forces a quarterback and his offensive line to make the right decisions under pressure sooner than they’re used to. This typically leads to mistakes and with an inexperienced quarterback the chances of mistakes are even higher.
I think everyone understands the importance of this game for Auburn. I know I said last week that the LSU game was likely one of the biggest in Malzahn’s career at Auburn but I think this game is even bigger. Auburn desperately needs a win and needs to show improvement but it won’t come easy. Auburn’s quarterback play will be a deciding factor in the outcome of the game and Manny Diaz will do everything he can to make Sean White as uncomfortable as possible.
Sean White will have to be efficient in the passing game and with Mississippi State likely playing a decent amount of man-man coverage, he’ll have opportunities for big plays down the field. Above all else though he has to protect the football. Auburn’s running game has to find some consistency and the offense must sustain drives.
Dak Prescott is going to do some damage…it’s just inevitable when you’re playing someone of his caliber…but as long as Auburn can keep him contained and not let him break long runs they greatly increase their chances of winning. I expect Will Muschamp to make some serious personnel changes on defense looking for more aggressive and physical play at the line of scrimmage. Considering the Bulldogs lost a few players along the offensive line, a more physical and aggressive Auburn front will cause some problems up front for Mississippi State.
With their backs against the wall, the Tigers come out swinging on both sides of the ball. Personnel changes on defense may not mean mistake free football but the Bulldogs will go home bruised and beaten. Sean White will make a few rookie mistakes early on but will quickly learn as the game progresses and will make some throws late in the game that will later be viewed as game changers. The Tigers start the uphill climb out of their rut and the Gus Malzahn doubters will be silenced once again.
Auburn 31 – Mississippi State 28
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