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Explaining Gus Malzahn’s deviously simple trick that ruined Nick Saban’s day

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Now we wait for Saban to try this against somebody else.

Gus Malzahn celebrates Auburn beating Alabama. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

All evening, the 2019 Iron Bowl felt like it would come down to whoever had the ball last. To make sure that was Auburn, the Tigers did something clever with a 48-45 lead.

Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas doinked a 30-yard field goal off the left upright with two minutes left. The Crimson Tide had two timeouts left at that point, and Auburn wasn’t inclined to put the ball in the air with true freshman QB Bo Nix. So, after three plays and two Bama timeouts, the Tide effectively forced a punt.

The Tide would get the ball back with a little under a minute left and no timeouts. They’d probably be around their own 30, unless returner Jaylen Waddle did something truly special. And maybe Waddle could’ve, with a kick return and three receiving TDs already under his belt.

But Waddle never got a chance. Officials flagged Bama for having too many men on the field before the play, giving Auburn a game-sealing first down. The world looked on in shocked bemusement that the Tide, forever the sport’s most disciplined program, would mess up so badly.

It didn’t just happen, though. Auburn created it.

What Auburn did is sneaky, but also stunningly simple.

The Tigers lined up in a regular offensive formation, legally speaking. They had seven men on the line of scrimmage, five wearing offensive lineman numbers as required by NCAA rules. On fourth-and-four, they could’ve just snapped the ball from that formation and gone for it.

In the X receiver position, at the bottom here, was #90, punter Arryn Siposs. This is how Bama got into trouble:

Because Auburn was in an offensive formation, the Tide didn’t have Waddle on the field right away. As Gus Malzahn would tell reporters later, this was exactly what he wanted: to send the punter back to kick after Bama’d already substituted, leaving no one deep to return it.

“We were just trying to find ways to keep [Waddle] off the field in that moment,” Malzahn said. “We felt like if we get the defense [we want to see], we can kick it and flip the field.”

And remember: Bama was out of timeouts. Nick Saban’s staff was not cool with Auburn punting to no returner, nor with Auburn running an offensive play against the punt return unit. The Tide tried to avoid both. Then the flags flew, and it was game over.

I’m skeptical Malzahn had any plan to actually kick the ball from that package.

His QB, Nix, was on the field, and did Malzahn really want a QB and maybe a running back to act as protectors for the punter inside Auburn’s own 20-yard line? The Tigers still had a timeout, which they could’ve called if anything looked dangerous. Another FBS special teams coach I talked to pointed out taking a delay of game was an option, too.

And the immediate fist pumps from Nix and Malzahn after the flag came down suggested the penalty was the plan.

But maybe Malzahn wasn’t really gunning for an illegal substitution penalty at all. Maybe the former high school coaching star’s plan really was just to motion his punter back deep and boot it away.

“When guys try to bring a Sunday game to Saturday, he’s brought a Friday night game to Saturday, and he’s been really great at it for years now,” said Brennan Marion, a former receiver for Malzahn at Tulsa who’s since become offensive coordinator at Howard and William & Mary. “Bringing high school football tricks — he doesn’t call them tricks, he calls them special plays — but bringing special plays in situations like that, in big games.”

Either way, Alabama didn’t recognize Auburn’s tradecraft until it was too late.

College football’s substitution rules are simple. The key things here:

  • If the offense substitutes, the defense gets to substitute. As long as the defense acts reasonably promptly, the offense can’t rush to the line and snap the ball before the D is ready. Officials use their best judgment to determine what’s reasonable.
  • The defense “is allowed to briefly retain more than 11 players on the field to anticipate the offensive formation, but it may not have more than 11 players in its formation if the snap is imminent.” So if the offense is ready to go after giving the defense a chance to make subs, the defense better not have more than 11 bodies on the field.

Let’s go step-by-step.

1. Auburn substituted into its new offensive formation, which included new players coming onto the field. That the punter was among them doesn’t matter to the rulebook.

2. Alabama then got time to substitute, too. The Tide were observant. They noticed the punter was on the field, so they sent Waddle back deep:

3. When the Tide realized Nix, the quarterback, was also on the field, they changed plans, Saban said later. They rushed their defense back out, concerned Auburn was going to go for it. Witness five-star cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. (#2) lining up directly on top of the punter (lol):

4. Officials marked the ball ready for play. Bama hadn’t quite gotten everyone near the line of scrimmage off the field. On top of that, Waddle was still back deep. CBS didn’t show the wide camera angle, but both coaches and Gary Danielson confirmed Waddle was still on the field here:

There are 11 Bama players on the field in that picture, 12 if you count the guy (#14) who’s technically a little late running off. And out of the picture, there’s Waddle. That’s as many as 13.

Afterward, Saban was furious. He called it “a pretty unfair play.” But he never said Auburn broke the rules, perhaps because he knows he’d be wrong.

“They substituted a punter as a wide receiver, so we put the punt team in. When the quarterback was still in there, we tried to put the defense back in,” Saban said.

“I thought they should’ve given us a little more time to substitute and get Waddle out as a returner. We get called for 12 guys on the field. It was very disappointing. We’re responsible for that as coaches, but it was a very unusual circumstance, to say the least. Sometimes, when you have those, they should be viewed that way.”

Saban was alluding to something real — that officials have broad leeway to keep the game under control if they think someone’s acting unfairly.

But what did Auburn do that was unfair? The Tigers picked their personnel and lined them up. The Tide had the right to do the same, and they did. Bama just didn’t have the right to do that twice.

Saban’s beef seems to be that Bama deserved a second wave of substitutions on the basis that Auburn was ... being silly? It’s not clear. No coach I heard from on Saturday thought it was out of the ordinary to only allow the Tide one standard substitution set.

It’s possible Saban is just mad he didn’t think of this ruse first. To that end, you should probably expect Bama to beat someone with it at some point.

In the 2013 Iron Bowl, Auburn beat Alabama thanks in part to a series of run/pass options, before the Kick Six finished the Tide off. Saban did not like RPOs or up-tempo offense, but he eventually adopted them and turned the Tide’s offense into Voltron.

Saban’s also railed against transfers before taking important transfers and railed against recruiting satellite camps before participating in them for the benefit of Bama recruiting.

None of that is a criticism of Saban. Maximizing the rules to your advantage, whether you like those rules or not, is wise for any coach.

It likely bugs Saban that Malzahn beat him to the punch on this particular trick. It’s safe to figure Saban will explore ways to wreak similar havoc later.

But this was a mismatch, with Malzahn’s greatest strength as a coach meeting Saban’s greatest weakness.

That strength for Malzahn: a willingness to try tacky schoolyard stuff in the biggest game of the year, even against the best program in the sport’s history. At points in the past, that’s been the Wildcat offense, RPOs, QB quick kicks, and multi-QB formations. He’s been laughed at a lot, but in that pile of weird stuff, he’s found things that have helped him.

“Gus has been doing this since he got out of college,” says Marion, his former player who’s now part of his coaching tree.

That weakness for Saban: special teams. Of course the guy who had his kicker try to block Christian Wilkins on a fake field goal in the national title game would fall for this gambit.