No one will argue that Auburn, offensively speaking, runs its spread option attack better than any opponent the Seminoles faced in 2013. But among the spread offenses the 'Noles have seen, there are a few places to garner some idea of how the defense will look Monday night in Pasadena.
There are many similarities between Auburn and Clemson on the offensive side of the football. It helps that Clemson's offensive coordinator, in an attempt to improve his high school football team at the time, sought out the wisdom of Gus Malzahn. While the two coaches never ended up working together on one staff, the similarities of formations and play calling are obvious to the eye.
Florida State hired defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt precisely because he had a reputation for being able to slow down spread offenses. It has worked. Auburn will be the seventh FBS team the Seminoles play that run a spread offense (eighth if you include Nevada's pistol) and the most points they have given up are 17 against NC State.
What sets Auburn apart from these teams FSU already has played is that it is the only team that consistently runs the triple option. It presents a unique challenge for the Florida State defense, which up until this point of the season, has not faced a team proficient at running the option.
Malzahn's offense, much like Chad Morris' at Clemson, is predicated on creating mismatches against the defense. It is a constant battle of numbers either out on the perimeter or in between the tackles. This means that at some point in the game, no matter how much you game plan, there is going to be a situation where the offense has more blockers than the defense has tacklers. Someone is going to need to make a play.
Take a look here at this first down play in Clemson. The Seminoles only have six men in the box versus eight for Clemson. A risky move for Florida State because Tajh Boyd is a good runner.
Boyd fakes the handoff to the right, freezing the FSU linebackers as both the right tackle and right guard pull left to lead the way for Boyd on the keeper.
What looks to be a very promising gain for the Tigers is reduced to a four-yard gain because cornerback P.J. Williams wins his matchup against the receiver to make the tackle on Boyd.
It may seem simple, but it's plays like this one that get defenses off of the field sooner rather than later. Ultimately, limiting plays and possessions will be the goal for the Florida State defense against Auburn.
One area where Florida State will need to be careful is when it is blitzing. Pruitt has enjoyed sending Lamarcus Joyner and Nate Andrews from the star and money positions this year and will certainly look to do the same against Auburn. Originally recruited as a defensive back, Nick Marshall is more of an athlete than a passer, but that does not mean he is incapable of throwing the ball.
Should the Seminoles get overly aggressive in an attempt to disrupt Auburn's rhythm, it could lead to some big plays via the play action pass or even a pass out of the option. Therefore it will be imperative that the Seminoles remain disciplined and play assignment football as they have all season long.
Wait, Maryland? In actuality, the Terrapins offered a couple of odd looks early in the game, looks that attempt to isolate the Seminole defenders in a similar way to Auburn. The key here is forget the eventual score and look at the concepts.
Right out of the gate, Maryland worked to get its receivers (which when healthy are superior to Auburn) involved. Burner Stefon Diggs, so often put in unique places to increase his touch count, lines up in the slot and motions behind the quarterback at the snap. The running back will turn into a lead blocker on an option.
Notice how Florida State plays this wrinkle. The defense, pre-snap, isn't aligning in man coverage. But when Diggs is on the move, safety Jalen Ramsey creeps up toward the line of scrimmage. Now the numbers game, alluded to in the last section, is again in play. The Seminoles will have four defenders (not counting corner receiver battle to that side) to account for four Terrapins.
Interestingly, receiver Deon Long engages Joyner before scraping toward a linebacker. Joyner is supposed to then be picked up by the lead blocker, paving the way for a one-on-one battle featuring Diggs against Ramsey. Mario Edwards Jr. does his job of forcing the quarterback to make the pitch, the cut block attempt on Joyner wasn't completely successful, and the play went for a gain of three yards with Joyner and Ramsey combining on the tackle.
Example two: The very next play. This time, Maryland has two backs in a shotgun look with slight variations in depth (something often seen in Auburn's offense). Check out how the 'Noles align pre-snap here: Two defenders (Edwards and Christian Jones) are standing on the edges and just two interior linemen have hands in the ground.
As this play begins to develop, a trend that may very well be in play Monday night becomes clear. Though Florida State showed a two-high safety look before the snap, senior Terrence Brooks takes off toward the H-back at the snap. FSU is in man coverage again, and this is against a better passing attack than Auburn's (again, it was before the Terps' bevy of injuries).
As the play develops, Edwards' assignment is to take the quarterback, while Brooks' job will be to beat his assignment if the 'speed' sweep is the play of choice. Instead the quarterback elects to keep it, with Edwards' positioning making it difficult to determine his assignment.
Of note on this third look: Brooks is one candidate to make the play of the sweep, but so too is the top linebacker in the frame, in this case Terrance Smith. Ultimately, the defense makes a play on a quarterback keeper, but it is vital for the 'Noles to 1) have the linebacker not get sucked in too close to the line of scrimmage that a pulling lineman can seal him off OR if that fails 2) to win the one-on-one battle with the safety flying toward the line.
Tre Mason's speed is nothing to toy with, and eye discipline will be key to keep the numbers game as even as possible.
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