Gus Malzahn is either the luckiest football coach alive or the brightest offensive mind of his generation. Everywhere he has been, he has created an offense for the ages. His latest creation is on familiar turf.
Auburn's first-year head coach might not have Cam Newton this time around, but he has a powerful offense that is tearing through SEC defenses. The Tigers are doing so with a relentless ground game that utilizes all of its weapons and dares the defense to try and stop it.
The other thing Malzahn does have is Nick Marshall, another junior college transfer at quarterback, who has rapidly become a mature and dependable leader for the No. 6 Tigers. In his first conference game as a starter in the SEC, Marshall led the Tigers down the field with both his feet and his arm. He tossed a beautiful touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah in the corner of the end zone with 21 seconds remaining to defeat Mississippi State.
Other than a loss at LSU, it has been mostly smooth sailing since Marshall's coming of age against the Bulldogs.
With the Tigers rolling through the SEC at a rate of nearly 40 points per game, the triple option used by service academies is probably the last thing you'd think to compare the Tigers' offense to. The triple option and Malzahn's no-huddle, spread attack might seem like polar opposites, but the Tigers use many of the same basic principles and reads to operate the run game with military-like precision.
It seems more natural to compare this year's Auburn team with the 2010 national champion squad. Malzahn was the offensive coordinator during that record-breaking season, but there is no superhuman Heisman Trophy winner on this year's squad. When things broke down during the 2010 season, Auburn knew it had Cam Newton, who could make magic happen with the ball in his hands.
Another way the 9-1 Tigers compare to Army, Navy and Air Force is the balance they have in their rushing attack. Led by running back Tre Mason, the Tigers have four players with more than 500 rushing yards on the season.
Speaking of balance, some pundits question whether Auburn is capable of throwing the ball well enough to topple No. 1 Alabama and win the SEC championship. CBS college football analyst Gary Danielson recently discussed the perceived lack of balance in Auburn's offense on The Tim Brando Show.
His appearance came prior to Auburn's miracle win over Georgia on Saturday. In the Tigers' previous two games, they had thrown a total of 16 passes, yet won both games with ease.
Let's talk about Auburn and the word balance. Alabama really strives for balance. They believe in it. They believe it makes them better at the other part of it. When they're running it, they think it makes them better at passing. When they're passing, they think it makes them better at running.
But Auburn's definition of balance is different. Their definition of balance is you have to be balance enough to what the defense is giving you. And they believe they can run the ball enough almost in a wishbone-esque way that when they have to throw the ball they can do it and they're good enough to do it.
But they don't have to do it until (the defense) tells them they have to do it. That means committing so many men to the run game that the level of passing sophistication doesn't have to be the same as Alabama's, LSU's or Georgia's. They can throw it differently.
(Malzahn) has five base plays and so does Alabama. They look different, but they are all built on the same premise: be physical at the line of scrimmage.
Along with running backs Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, quarterback Nick Marshall has improved each week. They have all been outstanding this season, but none of them will ever be Newton.
That's what makes this offense so special. Everyone on the roster plays a role in the success of the team, and they do it with a selfless attitude. Just like the flexbone, it takes 11 moving pieces to make it all work.
Similar to the triple-option attacks of Air Force, Army, Georgia Tech and Navy, the Auburn run game has been dominant. Unlike the service academies, Auburn is doing it in the SEC. It's not like a Malzahn offense or other spread concepts haven't been seen by SEC teams before, but the way Auburn uses the combination of power, speed and skill, hasn't.
The power run game out of a spread look makes it tough for defensive coordinators to prepare for. As many variables that each formation and play call create for the Tigers' offense, there are even more problems for the defense.
Just ask Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who had to prepare for Malzahn's offense three times while serving as the defensive coordinator at South Carolina. He now coaches alongside Malzahn and knows as much as anyone about Malzahn's philosophy.
Johnson sees it every day in practice and he understands the headaches it causes when it is being executed properly.
ESPN.com SEC writer Chris Low spoke with Johnson, who made it very clear that Malzahn's version of the spread is no gimmick. It's about establishing the run with power and tempo.
The first couple of times I ever coached against him, I thought it was going to be one of these fast-paced, dink-and-dunk offenses.
Now, he had Cam Newton, and that was a problem in itself. But even the next year when the talent dropped off some and they couldn’t run the quarterback, you started to figure out what he is. He’s a hard-nosed, physical running-game guy and then throws play-action.
He’s not what most people look at and say, ‘Spread.'
There are so many different spreads, and [Malzahn] is not a horizontal throwing game, zone-read guy. He runs the power and the counter power. Seventy-five percent of his running game is a two-back running game, and then he throws the ball vertically off play-action.
You’ve got the option, the element of power, and then you’ve got the pace and the tempo. That’s what I think really makes it hard to get ready for in college football today.
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When you factor in wide receiver Sammie Coates, who leads the nation in yards per reception, the Tigers have a laundry list of playmakers they can turn to when they need a big play.
Oregon's system has worked so well because receivers know Oregon's golden rule far before they sign with the Ducks: "No block, no rock." For the system to work, the receivers must be willing to give themselves up as blockers on the edge to help the running backs break off big gains.
Malzahn has a similar approach, and his players know it. From 2009-2012, Auburn used fullback Philip Lutzenkirchen in the passing game frequently. He had 59 catches and 14 touchdowns during his standout career.
Auburn's current fullback, Jay Prosch, served as Lutzenkirchen's backup in 2012. Prosch had five receptions in 2012 and also carried the ball nine times over the last four games of the season. With Lutzenkirchen gone, Prosch was likely expecting to see a bump in productivity as a senior.
As it turns out, he has. Just not in the way that will show up in the box score. His impact has been much greater than anything statistics could possibly measure. Prosch has seen his role as a pass-catcher decrease but has embraced his new role as Auburn's utility man.
Next to Marshall, the 260-pound Prosch is not only a defensive player's worst nightmare; he is probably the most important piece in Auburn's offense. He is used as a lead blocker for Mason between the tackles, he sets the edge for Grant to get around the corner and he serves as a bodyguard for Marshall when the protection breaks down.
This article, from Joel A. Erickson of AL.com, features quotes from Auburn coaches and players offering up high praise for the dominant fullback. After having his face torn up by the hand of a Tennessee Volunteer player, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told Erickson just how much Prosch means to the Tigers.
He came out, looked like he had been in a boxing match but Jay’s so tough he was in two or three plays later. We knew it going into the year and we said it a lot of times but just to the average fan, you might not see Jay. He’s caught one touchdown, he’s caught a few balls but I’m just telling you, Jay makes a lot of things right.
He’s as good of a fullback as there is anywhere in the country. He makes a lot of things go that maybe the average fan doesn’t see. I’ll tell you this: If we didn’t have Jay out there, a lot of people would notice a difference.
Malzahn has been dealt a few good hands with talented offensive weapons and veteran leaders, making it possible for him to install his system seamlessly.
With so many weapons and eye-popping numbers, it would be easy to picture a wide-open offense that relies on huge plays to break games open. The Tigers certainly have the ability to play a wide-open style and have proven the ability to break off big plays time and time again.
But in reality, the Tigers' approach is based on precision, power and execution, as they like to impose their will on their opponents by running the ball with a relentless attitude.
The same way Kelly adjusted to his personnel at New Hampshire and Oregon, Malzahn has done at Tulsa, Arkansas State and Auburn.
Ryan Black of the Ledger-Enquirer spoke with Malzahn, who said the Tigers are simply making the most of what they have to work with on this year's team (emphasis theirs).
Head coach Gus Malzahn said the one-sidedness in his play calling hasn’t struck him as strange, citing his background as a high school coach, where being able to adapt to the skill set of the roster is paramount.
“It's just whatever you do best, you need to build around that,” Malzahn said. “That's kind of what we're doing best right now.”
Though many like to draw comparisons to what Marshall is doing now to the things Cam Newton did during the 2010 campaign, Malzahn said the offense Auburn is fielding this year has its own iterations that set it apart.
"The first year, no matter whether it was Chris Todd or Cam Newton or Nick Marshall, the core of who we are foundation-wise didn't change,” he said. “We just build around the strengths of our quarterback.”
Not turning a blind eye to what’s working, Malzahn said Auburn is going to keep it on the ground as often as possible until opponents prove they can stop it.
“Football is not a complicated game,” he said. “A lot of people make it complicated, but you do what you're good at. Right now, we're good at running the football.”
Malzahn is right in the fact that football is not that complicated if you think of it as a numbers game. Chip Kelly wanted to get his players in space and utilize speed to outmatch the defense in one-on-one situations.
Malzahn believes in the same ideas because he knows that having as many, or more, blockers than the opponent has defenders makes it easy to execute the game plan to perfection. When you add in a talented offensive line, a trio of multi-skilled running backs and a dynamic and rapidly improving quarterback, it is easy to understand why Auburn has turned 2013 into a season to remember.