In 2007, I set the Georgia/Auburn game up as a referendum on Willie Martinez's coordination of the University of Georgia defense. Then the question was whether Martinez would outscheme UGA alum and Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. That game turned out fairly well, though things have been mostly downhill defensively from there. Which leads us to the 2009 UGA/Auburn showdown.
This year Coach Martinez is again facing questions going into the matchup with the Plainsmen, more questions than in the previous two seasons. And his latest adversary, new Auburn offensive guru Gus Malzahn is perhaps his most formidable to date.
Chris Brown over at Smart Football can tell you everything you could want to know about Malzahn's warp speed offense. For my money Chris is the best X's and O's blogger out there, and he's done a good job of explaining Malzahn's exceptionally unique approach. It's interesting to consider that Malzahn was coaching at Arkansas's Springdale High School as recently as 2005. Now he's being hailed as one of the most innovative offensive minds in all of football. Like former Texas high school coach Bum Phillips (one of the early innovators of zone blocking schemes, and reputed to be one of the first to number the gaps along the line of scrimmage), Malzahn is the type of original you can spot from a mile away.
I've hinted for some time that Malzahn's offense worries me silly. However I haven't talked about why that's the case until now. Bottomline, this offense exhibits several features uniquely suited to beating the pants off our defense, including:
- Play action. Yes, our old hobgoblin. Malzahn's offense employs the same bootleg action that Tennessee absolutely eviscerated us with and the read-option look that Florida shredded us with under Dan Mullen. One wrinkle is that they will sometimes bootleg the QB one way then throw a screen back the other way. The result is a game of gridiron three card monte that I have no confidence in our ability to stop.
- Tempo. As Chris notes, Malzahn's offensive playbook isn't that revolutionary. Auburn runs counters, bubble screens and other plays that everybody has been running everywhere for years. The main difference is that Malzahn's Tulsa offenses ran over a thousand plays a year. Auburn may not quite be on track to do that, but they do fly up to the ball on every snap. There's no standing around checking and motioning and otherwise burning time. This has two marked effects. One is that defenses do not have time to make adjustments to the set that Auburn lines up in. The ball will generally be snapped within 5 seconds of being whistled into play, so there's no time to communicate. You have to play using the calls you come out of the huddle with. Defenders, even smart defenders, wind up out of position. Things just fall apart. Second, the offense just wears defenses down. 80+ snaps a game is a lot of plays. Auburn has been practicing that grind all season. We haven't, and have looked a little out of shape against less demanding offenses. I envision lots of winded Georgia defenders. And of course fatigue generally contributes to our other old friend, missed tackles.
Chris Todd. I know, Todd is not a unique aspect of Malzahn's offense. But Malzahn's offense has done something unique for Todd. He's thrown 17 touchdowns this season versus only 3 interceptions. While Todd is only completing 58.6% of his passes, Malzahn's offense doesn't ask him to take a lot of downfield shots, and it doesn't ask him to make a lot of post-snap reads. In other words, Auburn's offense helps protect the kind of quarterbacks who've had career games against us this season. Coach Richt has talked about how this defense's biggest problem has probably been its inability to create turnovers. I doubt this Auburn offense will do them any favors in that department.
- The Wildcat. We haven't seen a lot of the ubiquitous Wild____ formation this season. Malzahn of course is credited with bringing the concept to the front of the national football consciousness at Arkansas with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. He has a less heralded but solid group of tailbacks and receivers at Auburn who are capable of running the wildcat, which is designed to get playmakers out in space against defenders. Can anyone think of any area in which Georgia's defense has struggled more of late than tackling shifty skill players in the open field? Yeah, me neither.
Of course, Auburn has also given up a ton of points this season as well, including 31 to LSU and 44 to Arkansas. Perhaps we'll have similar luck and win in a shootout. And perhaps I'm treating a chihuahua like a pit bull just because this season has turned me into a rampant pessimist. But I simply can't shake the impression that whatever else happens Saturday won't be a good day for Willie Martinez. Until Thursday . . .