Thursday, October 31, 2013
Running room, tough yards fueling Auburn
By Rob Nelson
Gus Malzahn has the Auburn Tigers at 7-1 and ranked 11th in the BCS standings.
Last season, Auburn finished 3-9, its worst record since 1952. Malzahn served as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010 when the Tigers won the BCS National Championship. In 2012 he was the head coach at Arkansas State. Under Malzahn, the Red Wolves finished 10-3 and were the Sun Belt Champions.
One of the keys to Arkansas State’s success last season was its running game. The Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in rushing yards per game for this first time since the conference sponsored football in 2001.
While Arkansas State ran through the Sun Belt, Auburn finished last in SEC play in rushing yards per game and yards per rush, while finishing tied for last in rushing touchdowns.
Malzahn has flipped the script for Auburn this season; the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing yards per game and yards per rush. They rank second in rushing touchdowns.
Through eight games, they already have 13 more runs of 10 yards or more and eight more rushing touchdowns than they had all of last season.
What specifically has fueled Auburn’s rushing attack in 2013?
More room to run
Auburn leads the SEC and ranks second among BCS AQ schools this season in rushing yards before contact.
Of the Tigers’ 2,523 rushing yards this season, 1,618 have come before contact. They are the only SEC team averaging more than four yards before contact per rush.
In 2012, Auburn was 13th in the SEC with 815 rushing yards before contact. The Tigers have 117 rushes in which they were not contacted until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage this season, 23 more than any other SEC team.
Tre Mason gaining tough yards
One constant for Auburn the last two seasons has been Tre Mason. In 2012, Mason was one of nine SEC players to rush for more than 1,000 yards, and in 2013 he ranks fifth in the conference with 753 rushing yards. However, Mason has been better at picking up tough yards in 2013 compared with 2012.
This season, Mason has converted 76 percent of his runs on third or fourth down, second-best percentage in the SEC behind Missouri’s Henry Josey (minimum 10 attempts). He has converted a first down on 79 percent of such runs with three yards or fewer to go, including a fourth and one play at the Texas A&M 1-yard line in the Tigers win.
Last season, Mason converted 50 percent of his rushes on third or fourth down, including only half when he had fewer than three yards to go for a first down.
Similarly, Mason has four rushing touchdowns in five goal-to-go attempts this season. He had five such touchdowns in 11 attempts last season.
Others besides Mason stepping up
In 12 games last season, Onterio McCalebb was the only Tiger besides Tre Mason to gain more than 400 rushing yards. In eight games this season, three Auburn players other than Mason have run for more than 400 yards.
Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant each have combined for 1,422 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Each player has his own strengths: Marshall is averaging 7.1 yards per rush on 44 zone-read rushes, Artis-Payne is averaging 7.0 yards per rush on 39 first-down rushes, and Corey Grant is averaging 11.1 yards per rush on 39 rushes outside of the tackles.
Auburn has added 74.0 expected points on rushing plays this season, ninth most in the FBS. Last season, the Tigers had a -6.3 EPA on rushing plays, 78th in the FBS. Expected points added are the contribution of each unit to a team’s net points in a game, so Auburn has added about nine points per game towards its net scoring margin with running plays this season.
Next up for Auburn is a road game against Arkansas, a team that has struggled to stop the run in SEC play. The Razorbacks are allowing 251.5 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per rush in conference games, both worst in the SEC.