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Auburn’s offense has been glitchy and lacked explosiveness. Can Missouri take advantage?

It will require tackling well.

NCAA Football: Mercer at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

If Missouri is to pull a stunning turnaround and upset Auburn this Saturday at Faurot Field, it’s far more likely that the MU defense was the major cause. The Auburn defense is easily the most sturdy, high-ceilinged unit this game will feature, but while the Auburn offense has had plenty of high-caliber moments, it’s been beset by glitches, too.

Heading into the season, I saw Auburn as a potential top-five caliber team because not only was the defense likely to play at a really high level, but the offense had exactly the pieces it needed as well. I knew the risk I was running by saying good things about Auburn in a public space — AU tends to do the exact opposite of what you expect at any and all times — but I was pretty confident.

From a Sept. 24 upset of LSU to a Nov. 5 win over Vanderbilt, Auburn went 6-0. Quarterback Sean White caught fire, and the Tigers averaged 7 yards per play and 513 yards per game; their opponents averaged 4.8 and 334, respectively. They beat LSU in a slog and took down Ole Miss in a shootout. They played one of 2016’s best games, a 56-3 disintegration of Arkansas.

Auburn was the month of October’s best team in the country. But then White injured his shoulder against Ole Miss. He played well against the Rebels and Vandy, but he went 6-for-20 against Georgia and missed the final two games of the regular season. He returned against OU, threw 10 passes, and broke his forearm.

It’s as if losing your starting quarterback can jam a stick into your spokes. [...]

So now, Auburn heads in with two starter-caliber QBs, a trio of running backs that rivals any in the RB-heavy SEC, a senior-heavy offensive line, and a defense with enough returning pieces and a high enough ceiling to match last year’s surprising top-10 performance. And with the Tigers ranked just 13th in the preseason AP poll, I find myself considering them almost ... underrated. I didn’t know that was possible, but here we are.

The premise was simple: the AU offense was dynamite when healthy in 2016. It just wasn’t healthy for very long. Good health + an upgrade at QB = good things.

So first of all, White is no longer with the team. He was booted this past week. So that’s just one starter-caliber QB. And if Stidham keeps taking the hits he’s been taking, the Tigers will be starting a freshman pretty soon.

Through three games, Stidham has been sacked 15 times, i.e. 15 percent of his 100 pass attempts. He has also rushed 19 times, not including the sacks. Things took a positive turn against Mercer last week — he was sacked only once and rushed just six times for 26 yards. He also went nuts, completing 32 of 37 passes for 364 yards.

Auburn averaged 6.4 yards to Mercer’s 3.7, outgaining them in raw yardage, 510-246.

So how the heck did the Tigers only win, 24-10? Because they were extraordinarily sloppy with the football. They fumbled five times — receiver Ryan Davis dropped the ball twice, while running back Kamryn Pettway and receivers Eli Stove and Kyle Davis each fumbled once.

That they lost four of those fumbles was a bit unlucky, but they still fumbled five times. And to make matters worse, Stidham threw an interception late in the third quarter as AU was still trying to put the ball away. Three of these five turnovers happened inside the Mercer 30, ending scoring opportunities (they missed a short field goal, too); another set up a scoring chance for Mercer late in the first half.

As a result, Auburn put itself in danger. The Tigers generated double the scoring opportunities (eight to four), but if the Bears had actually been proficient at converting their own scoring chances (they scored just 10 points in four opps), they’d have had a shot at an upset.

The recipe for slowing Auburn has been pretty clear thus far: tackle well, prevent big plays (AU currently ranks 122nd in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of successful plays), and hack at the ball like crazy.

If Mizzou had shown any propensity for doing any of that, it might be pretty easy to talk yourself into an upset shot. But let’s just say a win will require the best performance of the year for both the MU offense and defense. A week after the team’s worst, most unprepared performance in ages.

Jarrett Stidham (6’3, 214, So.) — 628 passing yards, 69% completion rate, 10.6 yards per completion, 2 TD, 2 INT, 15% sack rate; 19 carries, 84 yards (4.4), 1 TD
Malik Willis (6’1, 202, Fr.)

With White dismissed, Stidham’s backup is now freshman Malik Willis, an Atlanta native who was listed as an “athlete” by recruiting services. One assumes Auburn will go out of its way to keep Stidham from getting hit too much, then. Last week, the Tigers incorporated far more standard downs passing than they had been, either because of injury risk or because it was working.

Considering the current state of Missouri’s run defense (not too bad) and pass defense (somewhere between mediocre and tire fire), I’m guessing the same approach is likely. Or, if the Mizzou offense isn’t showing any hope, they might just hand the ball to Kam Pettway a lot and run out the clock.

Running Back
Kamryn Pettway (6’0, 235, Jr.) — 56 carries, 202 yards (3.6), 3 TD; 3 targets, 3 catches, 32 yards (10.7)
Kerryon Johnson (6’0, 212, Jr.) — 16 carries, 136 yards (8.5), 1 TD

Chandler Cox (6’1, 239, Jr.)
Spencer Nigh (6’0, 270, So.)

Pettway has been battling a heel injury, but it hasn’t stopped him from taking on a pretty heavy load of carries. He had 34 last week, gaining just 128 yards in the process. If the QB isn’t a run threat, it hinders Malzahn’s options a bit.

The Tigers have had to lean on Pettway because Kerryon Johnson has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. He’ll play against Missouri, apparently, but for Mizzou’s sake, here’s to hoping that neither is 100 percent for another week. It’s only fair if Damarea Crockett also isn’t 100 percent. Mizzou needs him a lot more than Auburn needs them.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Clemson
Kamryn Pettway
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receiver
Ryan Davis (5’9, 175, Jr.) — 24 targets, 20 catches, 146 yards (6.1), 1 TD
Will Hastings (5’10, 167, Jr.) — 9 targets, 9 catches, 151 yards (16.8), 1 TD

Wide Receiver
Darius Slayton (6’2, 190, So.) — 10 targets, 3 catches, 43 yards (4.3)
Kyle Davis (6’2, 213, So.) — 7 targets, 4 catches, 69 yards (9.9)

Wide Receiver
Eli Stove (6’0, 183, So.) — 10 targets, 7 catches, 67 yards (6.7)
Noah Igbinoghene (5’11, 186, Fr.) — 4 targets, 4 catches, 23 yards (5.8)

Wide Receiver
Nate Craig-Myers (6’2, 213, So.) — 6 targets, 4 catches, 63 yards (10.5)
Sal Cannella (6’5, 228, So.) — 3 targets, 2 catches, 24 yards (8.0)

Tight End
Jalen Harris (6’4, 252, Jr.)
Tucker Brown (6’3, 288, Jr.)

The ball distribution has been a little bit weird for Auburn so far. The three players who have been targeted at least 10 times (R. Davis, Stove, and Slayton) are averaging a paltry 5.8 yards per target with a pretty mediocre 45 percent catch rate. Passes to Davis are extended handoffs, basically.

The next three players on the targets list, however (Hastings, K. Davis, Craig-Myers) are averaging 12.9 yards per target with a 68 percent success rate. You could say there’s a game theory aspect here — that those secondary receivers are doing better because they’re secondary receivers — but the balance has still been far more off than it probably needs to be. The top three have been targeted 44 times, the next three 22 times.

Slayton is questionable for Saturday. That might not be the worst thing in the world for Auburn.

Regardless, expect a lot of short passing from Auburn. And if Missouri tackles like it did in the first half against Purdue, those short passes will average far more than 5.8 yards per target.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Auburn
Ryan Davis
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Left Tackle
Prince Tega Wanogho (6’7, 301, So.) — 3 career starts
Bailey Sharp (6’5, 300, So.)

Left Guard
Mike Horton (6’4, 318, So.) — 3 career starts
Marquel Harrell (6’3, 308, So.)

Austin Golson (6’5, 312, Sr.) — 26 career starts
Casey Dunn (6’4, 292, Sr.) — 27 career starts

Right Guard
Braden Smith (6’6, 303, Sr.) — 30 career starts
Wilson Bell (6’5, 355, Sr.) — 18 career starts

Right Tackle
Darius James (6’4, 324, Sr.) — 13 career starts
Calvin Ashley (6’6, 350, Fr.)

James is questionable after suffering an injury last week — Auburn’s offense has been bitten pretty hard by the injury bug thus far — but the strength is on the interior. Braden Smith, a former blue-chipper from Olathe (and one of many recruiting misses that hurt Mizzou up front), is maybe one of the league’s better interior linemen, and at the least, Austin Golson is experienced as well. The tackles got eaten alive by Clemson, but Auburn seems to have adjusted its game plan a bit to help counter the pass rush.

Even with Smith and Golson on the interior, the run game hasn’t been nearly as productive as I expected. Obviously running back injuries have played a role in that; Pettway and Johnson haven’t been Pettway and Johnson yet. But whatever the equation, Missouri’s best hope for making stops is to win on the interior, tackle well on the short passes, and hope to go three-and-out fewer times than Auburn does. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing recipe in the world, but it’s a recipe.

Arkansas State v Auburn
Braden Smith (71)
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images