The third play I'll be looking at in Auburn's run game is their counter. The counter for Auburn is less of a stand-alone play and more of a scheme that Malzahn has found numerous uses for. Once again, I'll reiterate the fact that for the most part everything Malzahn does is very simple scheme wise, it's his ability to "dress up" his simple schemes with formations, motion, and tempo that makes his offense so explosive. The counter scheme is no different than the buck sweep and inverted veer in the sense that Malzahn relies heavily on numerous formations and motions to disguise the play, but the counter scheme is also extremely versatile and Malzahn has numerous variations, all of which he employs pretty consistantly.
Brophy already has a great post explaining the blocking scheme for counter, and includes a diagram and video clips of the play, so head there for a great explanation of the blocking rules, technique, and idea behind the play. Therefor my post will be geared more towards the base play and it's variations and the numerous formations and motions employed to make this scheme so effective.
Below is a diagram for how Auburn's base counter play looks. Similar to their inverted veer play (which I'm going to refer to as "Dash" from now on because it's a much better name and easier to type) the frontside of the line blocks down.
The backside guard is looking to kick out the defensive end, but will log if the end comes down hard. The H is looking to lead through the hole for the tailback, but will adjust his course as well if the end crashes. The tailback aligns opposite of the play and is usually two yards deeper than the QB in order to become a downhill threat.
Let's go to an actual example. Like on many plays, the tailback #5 Dyer starts out of the backfield and will motion in.
Once Dyer gets into the backfield we see the actual depth of his alignment, Auburn's backs align very deep on their counter and power plays and attack downhill now.
On the snap of the football we will see the right guard pull, along with the H-back lead while the tailback sets up to attack downhill. I've highlighted the targeted defensive end.
Here we see how well the left side of the offensive line does at securing their down blocks and beginning to build a wall of bodies. The pulling guard is set up well to open the hole for the H-back and tailback to go through.
The guard engages his block as the H-back is heading to block the play side linebacker.
And finally we see the hole that's been created, even though the pulling guard isn't able to sustain his block. Dyer is able to make a player in the secondary miss and this play goes for about 30 yards
Here is another example, from a different formation set. Notice the use of another running back to help pick up the outside linebacker.
The defensive end squeezes with a down block read.
The pulling guard adjusts his path and now logs the end, causing Dyer the tailback to adjust his path as well.
Dyer ends up dancing too much and pursuit is able to track him down, but overall an interesting adjustment by using a second running back and a good example of a defensive end crashing and the pulling guard logging.
One of the variations that Auburn runs is to flip the side of the tailback. Essentially, they counter the counter, which gives defenses another thing to prepare for with almost no teaching.
Here we see a base alignment for Auburn, except as I stated the tailback aligned opposite of the H-back.
The tailback takes a downhill course, and attacks the line of scrimmage almost in a straight line. After taking the hand off he slightly plants on his inside foot and angles back towards the off tackle hole. We see the pulling guard and H-back executing the same techniques as the base counter.
Auburn executes well, but are simply outnumbered at the point of attack.
Here is an interesting wrinkle Auburn showed later that game off of the same action from above. It's a quick screen to the two receiver side with the exact same run action.
I was unsure if this was a called screen, or a choice for Newton to make. I'm still not completely sure, I think there's a big possibility it could be either give to Dyer or throw the screen. No matter what it is, Dyer's fake is pretty good.
Easy completion, and a nice 5-6 yard gain.
Auburn also makes extensive use of their QB run game off of their counter scheme as well. They do it in a couple of different ways as well.
The first QB counter is a very traditional one that most shotgun teams employing any kind of counter scheme may make use of. They will have their QB mesh with the tailback and ride him, after disengaging from the mesh the QB will then become the counter back and follow the H-back.
QB Counter II
The second kind of QB counter that Auburn runs is actually very similar to "Dash" in a way and compliments "Dash" well. It also seems to be the preferred choice for Malzahn.
On this play, the QB rides the tailback once again, except this time the tailback will be running his sweep path to the side that the play is hitting. The play starts out very similar to "Dash" in this sense, along with that the DE to the play side is left unblocked as well. The play starts off almost exactly like "Dash" until the pulling guard actually engages the unblocked DE and the QB disengages from the mesh and follows the H-back through the hole.
Once again, the tailback (McCalebb in this instance) starts aligned in the slot and will motion into the backfield.
Here's a diagram as to what is about to happen, the backfield action is pretty much the same as it is on the "dash" play. The only difference now being the kick out block on the defensive end and not the reading of him.
Notice the drastic change in depth of the tailback on this play in order to execute his job. This depth is used on the QB counter, dash, and buck sweep plays.
As the play starts we see the mesh between Newton and McCalebb and the blocking up front start to unfold. It's hard not to stress this enough, but Auburn's offensive line this year was very experienced and very good, and it definitely shows on almost every play.
Also note the highlighted player. Since South Carolina is in a 3-4 front on this play the pulling guard is actually looking to kick out an outside linebacker and not a defensive end with his hand on the ground.
The outside linebacker screams down towards McCalebb who is running his sweep path creating a chasm in the defense.
Finally, Newton takes care of the rest. This is powerful football at it's best.
Here's another example out of a much different set (pardon my drawing, I went a little nuts on this one.)
Auburn aligns in an end-over set with both tight end and split end on the same side. Since they do show so much unbalanced this formation is very similar to the one they run jet sweep out of so much. The flanker to the left would usually be the jet man and the H-back and tailback make for perfect lead blockers on a jet sweep play to the right.
Just like the first example, this play is run exactly the same.
An even better view.
The mesh between Newton and Fannin. The blocking scheme develops as it appears the defensive end is crashing down hard.
The pulling guard is trying to uproot the defensive end, while two unblocked defenders are over pursuing on Fannin. This sets up Smith the H-back for a nice lead through and Newton with a great opportunity to attack downhill into a decent size hole. At first it was hard to decide whether this play was a read or not. I originally thought Newton may be reading the over hang defenders for give or keep, but it just doesn't seem likely as I haven't seen him give to a tailback on the sweep path when the play is run with the counter blocking scheme.
Smith the H-back actually completely misses the hole and goes for a log block, maybe the crashing defensive end muddied his read? Anyways, Newton is left 1-on-1 with a defensive back who is much smaller than him and again he takes care of business. The play would've been almost perfect had Smith led through the hole, notice the absolute wall that has been constructed on the right side of the screen?
A few things to note since this is the third run scheme I've broken down on Auburn.
1) Malzahn uses lots of formations.
2x1, 2x2, 2x2 with a TE, 3x1, 3x1 with a TE, 4x1 And unbalanced versions of almost everything. Auburn is extremely multiple in this sense. While during many games Malzahn does get into a rhythm with certain formations he usually does a good job of opening up drives with a new look, or throwing a new look after a big play.
2) Speaking of big plays, Malzahn loves to turn up the tempo and use his gadget plays after getting a big first down.
3) Motion, and a decent amount of it. As I've documented Malzahn uses a lot of motion by his tailbacks to get into the backfield. They run their fair share of jet sweep as well, along with almost any compliment to the play you can think of. They also do the standard motions by their receivers, either into the formation or across the formation.
4) It is all of these things above (combined with experienced personnel at almost all positions) that allows the Auburn offensive schemes to remain relatively simple and yet appear to be a complicated piece of art. Auburn's schemes are not revolutionary, it's the combinations of all the smoke & mirrors listed above that really has transformed the Auburn offense into one of the most notable ones in all of football.
Finally, I would hate to be a defensive end playing against this team. Each play is a different experience. Auburn will kick you out, with an H-back or a pulling guard. They'll log you or crack you as well with numerous different players. Sometimes they'll leave you unblocked too. This means you could be on the front side of the play like in Dash or veer, or on the backside of inside zone.
Not to mention they can still throw the football. In their arsenal are play-action passes that have the QB setting up in the pocket and also have him moving the pocket. They throw just enough drop back passes to keep the secondary honest. And they keep everyone running laterally across the field, but especially those big boys up front on one of their many screens.
Defensive end's have a hell of a task and it takes one hell of an effort to not be out of position at any moment in time. It really is amazing to see all the things they can do to keep defenses on their toes.
Oh. And it also doesn't hurt to have a manchild of a Heisman winning quarterback either!