Mississippi State Football Film Study: What went wrong at Auburn?

Auburn Tigers quarterback Payton Thorne (1) throws the ball as Auburn Tigers take on Mississippi State Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Auburn Tigers lead Mississippi State Bulldogs 24-3 at halftime.
Auburn Tigers quarterback Payton Thorne (1) throws the ball as Auburn Tigers take on Mississippi State Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Auburn Tigers lead Mississippi State Bulldogs 24-3 at halftime. /
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Auburn Tigers linebacker Jalen McLeod (35) tackles Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Mike Wright (14)
Oct 28, 2023; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers linebacker Jalen McLeod (35) tackles Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Mike Wright (14) for a sack as he slips for a loss during the second quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports /

Costly mistakes for the offense

There was quite a bit of optimism from Bulldog fans that the offense would see improvement with Mike Wright at QB. I think that optimism was a bit misguided, but given the struggles through the first half of the year with Will Rogers under center, many simply wanted to see if a QB change, particularly towards one who can run, would provide any sort of spark.

I think we now have the answer to whether or not QB was the problem for the Mississippi State offense: it’s not. Or perhaps it is a problem, but it’s not the problem.

MSU went for a brand of football that many fans have been longing for. They leaned on a spread option run game with more shots down the field off play-action, the type of scheme that State fans will always embrace after the Mullen era and one that suits Mike Wright fairly well.

State’s opening drive was promising. Wright connected on a deep ball to Zavion Thomas for 32-yards on their opening play, an aggressive play-call we didn’t see the previous week. They found some success in the run game, and even went for and converted a fourth down. They ultimately had to settle for a field goal (the correct decision in this case), but it seemed like a good day was in store.

Unfortunately for MSU, once they got past their scripted opening plays, success was hard to find. Their next three drives yielded just 48 yards and three punts. But late in the second quarter, State finally got another scoring opportunity. Down 17-3 and facing 4th & 1 from the Auburn 30 with 1:14 left in the half, Zach Arnett made the decision to go for it.

Down 14 and feeling as though you needed a TD to stay in the game, I fully support the decision to go. The problem was State’s play-call and lack of execution on said play-call were not at all ideal.

Kevin Barbay called Split Zone Bluff Read. It’s Inside Zone Read with a TE showing Split Zone action but leaving the DE unblocked and passing him up to get out as a blocker on the edge. Basically, it’s your classic Zone Read with a lead blocker for the QB if he keeps the ball. And keeping the ball is exactly what Mike Wright chose to do….when he definitely should not have.

The unblocked DE gives a clear “give read” to Wright. He stays in the C-gap as opposed to crashing down on the RB, which tells the QB to hand the ball off to said RB. But Wright clearly predetermined that he was keeping it around the edge. It’s not completely uncommon for QB’s to pass on a give read for Split Zone Bluff because the split flow from the TE is usually enough to occupy the DE and let the QB get around the edge.

But the DE is on Wright all the way. When Wright keeps it, he’s easily brought down for a loss. Turnover on downs, and Auburn goes on another scoring drive before the end of the half to go up three scores. It was a potential 14-point swing that ultimately put the game out of reach.

The most frustrating thing about this play is that if Wright hands it off, it’s an easy first down and potentially more. The OL blocked it perfectly, and Jeffery Pittman would’ve been one-on-one with a safety in space. This could’ve been an explosive play. Bad execution keeps points off the board for State and sets up points for Auburn.

But the play-call itself is frustrating as well. I’m not going to do the whole “shotgun vs under center” debate. I think that’s often overblown by fans, particularly when you’re talking about teams that work out of the gun 99% of the time and can easily run downhill from that look. My qualm is that they went with a read play as opposed to a straight run.

When you’ve got one yard to go, you want to take thinking out of the equation. Don’t leave your success in the hands of the QB judging the leverage of an unblocked player when you can simply plow ahead. And the whole reason teams use option plays is to account for when the defense has a numbers advantage in the box. If they’ve got one more guy than you can block, option one of them. But that’s not the case here. State has seven blockers vs seven box defenders for Auburn.

You didn’t need an option. Now obviously Kevin Barbay has no way of knowing for sure what look the defense would show. They had the read called in case they were outnumbered. But lots of offenses have checks built in to only have a read when it’s necessary based on a box count. While bad execution killed this play, the mistake could’ve easily been avoided.

On MSU’s opening drive of the second half, it looked like they’d found something once again. They made it down to the Auburn 14, facing 3rd & 6. Early in the game, State had shown a handful of different wrinkles in the run game, featuring more misdirection than usual. With no Woody Marks and an offense that, without Will Rogers, has to lean on the run game to find success, I thought this was a smart move. I enjoyed several of the new looks they showed.

But this one didn’t work for them, and again, execution kills a play. They try a reverse with Zavion Thomas off GH Counter blocking. Tulu Griffin is in the backfield at RB to the right of Wright, and Thomas is in a bunch set to the left. Wright hands it off to Griffin going left while Thomas follows the counter to the right. Tulu is supposed to hand it off to Thomas for the reverse going the other way.

But one of them runs their track at the wrong depth, and they end up running right into each other. Somehow Tulu manages to get the ball to Thomas, but the collision completely destroys the timing of what’s meant to be a fairly quick hitting play. It’s possible the weakside DE still disrupts things regardless, as it seems a blocking assignment was blown, allowing him to get into the backfield.

But whatever chance Thomas had of avoided him was shot once the collision happens. And it looks like the blocking was there on the edge for Thomas to get good yardage. Instead it’s a tackle for a loss, and MSU settles for a field goal that did them little good down 21-points.

State did end up giving themselves a chance though. There was a long stretch where the Bulldogs were down 14 but seemed to have most of the momentum. But every time they had a chance to really put the pressure on Auburn, they just couldn’t strike.

This interception from Mike Wright felt like the final nail in the coffin. It’s 2nd & 10 with 7:43 left. If State can find the end zone, they’re knocking on the door of another comeback at Auburn. State runs a Y-Cross variation with a deep post over top. Auburn shows a 2-high quarters look but rotates into a man free blitz at the snap.

The Tigers have this covered perfectly. No one is open, not even the checkdowns. And Wright doesn’t have a great lane to escape for a scramble before the pass rush gets home. Quarterback-ing 101 here would say “throw it away”. But Wright instead chooses to launch an arm punt to the deep post into double coverage for the pick.

On fourth down, I’d understand it. If the game was completely out of reach, you could live with it. But on second down in a two-score game with plenty of time left, Wright just can’t throw that ball. He’s got to throw that away and live to see another down. In this situation, you’re going to have two more chances to move the chains. Don’t punt on that by throwing up an unnecessary prayer. Also frustrating is the fact that on the play before, he threw deep into double-coverage when he had Zavion Thomas open for a first down across the middle.

Wright isn’t going to beat teams with his arm. It’s why he’s ultimately the backup. But when he’s in the game, he must make better decisions as a passer. And to be fair to him, he made a handful of impressive throws against Auburn. But defenses will gladly choose to sellout against the run and live with surrendering the occasional laser downfield if they aren’t convinced he’ll be accurate and make good decisions when put into long-yardage situations.