Auburn Football: Nick Marshall Helps Break Down NCAA's Most Dominant Play

Justin Lee@@byjustinleeContributor IDecember 28, 2013

USA Today

Auburn's rushing attack is the real deal.

The 545 rushing yards the Tigers put up against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game wasn't any kind of fluke. Auburn has been gashing opponents with its ground game all season—against some of the nation's best defenses in the Southeastern Conference.

Auburn rolled up 444 yards on the ground against Tennessee back in early November, and before that, plowed through the Texas A&M defense to the tune of 379 yards on the ground. More recently, the Tigers tallied 323 yards rushing against Georgia.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07:  Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates his fourth quarter touchdown with teammate quarterback Nick Marshall #14 against the Missouri Tigers during the SEC Championship Game at Georgia Dome on December 7, 2013 in Atlanta,
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Tigers even ran for 296 rushing yards against the vaunted Alabama defense, which entered the Iron Bowl as the nation's top-ranked rush defense, allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game up to that point, and having not allowed 165 yards in a single game this season until that November date with destiny.

Gus Malzahn's rushing attack has only gotten better throughout the season, improving week-to-week. The Tigers puzzled some of college football's best defensive minds as they made a meteoric rise through the national rankings.

Since an early-season loss to LSU, Auburn has won nine straight games and put together the single greatest turnaround in college football history—and it can all be traced back to a few factors.

The play of Auburn's sensational backfield duo—quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason—and the emergence of the read option in Malzahn's system turned Auburn's rushing attack into an unstoppable force.

It's clear that, right now, Auburn is the hottest team in the country. 

And right now, Auburn's read option is the most devastating play in college football.

The concept seems simple enough. The play begins with Marshall standing in the shotgun with his running back set to his left or to his right. As Marshall takes the snap, the back will cut across in front of him. Marshall will stick the ball into his back's gut—and fixate his eyes on the defensive end that lined up nearest the running back.

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Auburn's offensive line leaves that defensive end untouched, and based on his actions, Marshall decides whether to hand the ball off to his running back, or pull it back and keep it himself. If the end keeps his eyes on Marshall and hesitates, hoping to contain the quarterback outside, Marshall will hand off the ball inside. If the end crashes inside and goes after the running back, Marshall will hang onto the ball and run around the end for a gain to the outside.

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Inside, the offensive line has a man advantage if the ball is handed off up the middle, since they left the defensive end unblocked. If Marshall decides to keep the ball and head for the outside, all he has to do is get around that key defensive end and he should have some open field ahead of him.

It's nothing that hasn't been done before. Auburn's version of the read option is hardly revolutionary.

Still, what the Tigers have been able to do with the play—combined with Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle scheme and the talents of Marshall and Mason—seems unprecedented.

Auburn leads the nation in rushing, averaging 335.69 yards per game on the ground. The Tigers' 46 touchdowns on the ground this season stand second only to Navy's 47. Mason's 22 rushing touchdowns are a single-season school record at Auburn.

Marshall and Mason have each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season, making them just the third duo in Auburn history, and just the seventh pair in SEC history, to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Most importantly, Auburn is headed to the BCS National Championship Game—and the read option is a big reason why.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07:  Quarterback Nick Marshall #14 of the Auburn Tigers warms up before playing against the Missouri Tigers during the SEC Championship Game at Georgia Dome on December 7, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Imag
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Marshall didn't get a chance to go through spring practice with the Tigers. The junior college transfer didn't arrive on the Plains until the middle of the summer—and he wasn't named starting quarterback until two weeks before the opener.

Marshall was thrown into the fire in Week 1 against Washington State, going through the first few games without a complete grasp of Malzahn's system, still trying to wrap his mind around some of the key concepts, including the read option.

With Marshall still feeling out the running game in the first few weeks, Auburn squeaked by Washington State and Mississippi State—and suffered its only loss of the season against LSU.

After that, things started to click.

The Tigers had a bye week after the LSU game, and Malzahn was able to work closely with Marshall on his game for the first time since camp—taking time to fine-tune the quarterback's game, rather than prepare for the upcoming opponent.

By the time the Tigers' next game rolled around, against Ole Miss, Marshall was a different quarterback, making the right reads in the option game and adding a new dimension to the Tigers' run game.

Auburn hasn't lost since.

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"I just took what we were doing and then embraced it," Marshall said last week, of the Ole Miss game earlier in the season. "We had an off week to work."

"That's when the read option got down to it. I just started trusting my instincts and knew I could just beat the defensive end and kept playing from there."

While Marshall gets much of the credit for making plays on the field, Malzahn deserves just as much acclaim for recognizing his quarterback's natural athletic ability and tailoring the offense to his strengths.

Malzahn did coach Cam Newton to a 1,000-yard rushing season as Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010. But that Tigers offense took to its ground game with a much different approach than the one Marshall, Mason and company have put forward here in 2013.

That season, Malzahn sent running backs sweeping left and right, while Newton pounded defenses on the inside. Now, Mason is gashing defenses between the tackles, while Marshall is running sideline-to-sideline.

"Coach Malzahn is going to call what you do best," Marshall said. "Whatever you do best, he's just going to keep doing that and really just call things that you're best at."

As it turns out, the read option is what Marshall does best—and right now, Marshall is the nation's best at running the read option.

No one has been able to solve Marshall and Mason's option attack. No matter how defenses have approached the Tigers this season, the duo has been able to churn out yards consistently when the offense is clicking.

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Alabama tried to keep its defense back, attempting to hold a line and control the damage Marshall and Mason could do. That didn't work.

A week later, Missouri took to attacking Auburn's backfield, sending its defensive line to penetrate upfield, gambling in an attempt to stop the play before it ever got started.

That didn't work either.

"We've got the best offensive line in college," Marshall said. "They give us way more push, and they've been doing that the whole season. We just run behind them."

Apart from the Tigers' fierce offensive line, there is a third piece to the Auburn backfield that helps complete the read option.

Senior fullback Jay Prosch, donning No. 35, often lines up in the backfield alongside Marshall and Mason, particularly in the Tigers' heavy sets.

As the play develops, and most of the offense goes one way to lead the way for the running back, Prosch peels off across the backfield in the opposite direction to become the sole lead blocker for Marshall.

CBS Broadcast

By design, Prosch will sidestep the key defensive end that the play calls to read and leave Marshall to beat him. Once Marshall gets past that end, Prosch is there to lead the way for Marshall on the outside.

That is perhaps what makes Auburn's read option so devastating: The same core concept and play can be run out of almost all of the Tigers' formations—meaning the read option can come at any time, attacking defenses as a finesse play out of the spread at midfield or as a power play at the goal line.

And in Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle fashion, the play hits defenses before they even know it.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07:  Quarterback Nick Marshall #14 of the Auburn Tigers passes the ball against the Missouri Tigers in the second quarter during the SEC Championship Game at Georgia Dome on December 7, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Just when opposing defenses think they have Auburn's read option figured out, more layers of the play become apparent—such as Malzahn's triple-option pass.

It's the play that helped Auburn beat Alabama in November, tying the game late and setting the stage for Chris Davis' last-second heroics.

On Auburn's last offensive possession of the game, the Tigers attacked the Alabama defense time and again with an option look, as Marshall handed the ball to Mason six straight times. Mason cut into Alabama territory, and the clock wound down with less than a minute to play.

As Alabama adjusted, and the Crimson Tide secondary started biting down on the run, Auburn continued to press on with the same look. On the seventh play of the drive, they ran the same read option. This time, Marshall pulled the ball and ran for the outside briefly—before revealing his third option on the play.

The Alabama defensive backs crashed down, anticipating a Marshall run, and Marshall connected with wide receiver Sammie Coates behind the secondary for the game-tying touchdown with 32 seconds to play.

From there, the rest is history.

The play that saved the Iron Bowl was no different than any of Auburn's other option plays, in that Marshall makes the reads right there on the field, finding ways to beat defenses with both his mind and his athletic ability.

CBS Broadcast

Marshall has three options on the play—starting with an opportunity to hand the ball off to Mason inside if the end attempts to contain outside. After that, Marshall also has the opportunity to keep the ball himself and pick up yards on the ground if the secondary stays back in coverage.

But if the defensive backs crash down, he can go to his third option, and pass the ball over their heads to Coates.

It's an added layer to a play that already seems impossible to defend—and it's an aspect of the Tigers' offensive attack that is sure to keep the Florida State coaching staff up at night until Jan. 6.

No one has been able to solve Auburn's read option yet, but if the Seminoles are able to do it in Pasadena, their bid at a national championship will become that much easier.

But if Auburn is able to keep rolling with its ground game, the Tigers could be able to end their miraculous season by lifting the crystal football.

Auburn's read option is a play that takes the game between the whistles—leaving coaches out of the equation and making players responsible for winning and losing on the field.

On Jan. 6, that play on the field will decide the BCS National Championship.

Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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