After a year of fumbling around in the dark Auburn football emerged from the shadows on Saturday evening at Jordan-Hare stadium. The Gus Malzhan era began with a hard-fought win over Washington State. Was it a masterpiece? No. But we will take it and be happy. Any Auburn fan who complains too much about the team performance last week is sentenced to watch the 2012 Auburn–Arkansas game six times in a row.
What do we know (or think we know) about the team after one game?
1. This team can respond to adversity without folding. Playing without its best two returning defensive players (Dee Ford and Justin Garrett), the 2013 Auburn team struggled at times against Washington State. The offense was inconsistent. The defense gave up a lot of yards. And yet – the team did not get down on itself. There was no visible evidence of a hangover from 2012 in terms of team confidence. The team got better as the game went along, on both sides of the ball, a sign of good coaching.
2. Nick Marshall was inconsistent in his first start. Everyone’s big concern going into the game was his history of turnovers. But Marshall did not have a turnover and did not force throws into bad situations. He did come out nervous or over-excited; he began the game throwing every pass 100 mph, often so fast it was difficult for those in the stadium to tell who he was actually throwing to. He settled down after halftime and went 8 for 12 in the second half. His quarterback rating by quarter went 37.5, 71, 112, 171. So the problem isn’t that he cannot make the throws, it is just that he couldn’t at the start of the game. Marshall also ran the ball, getting outside a few times (and pulling the ball down to run rather than forcing it into coverage). He is very quick and elusive as a runner, but limited by his size when running inside.
3. The offense as a whole was very inconsistent. The passing game could not extend the field (only three completions went over 15 yards.) After watching the Malzhan offense for years it is possible to see what they were trying to accomplish and know that many other plays were one block or one move away from being big plays. We have an extreme amount of confidence in Malzhan and Lashlee that the proper corrections can be made to get the offense firing on all cylinders.
4. Like Nick Marshall, the Auburn defense got better as the game went along. Despite having to play six defensive backs most of the game, and with depth concerns in that area, the defense got better as the game went along. The defensive line got better push and the coverage got better later in the game. Instead of playing 10-15 yards off the receivers as Auburn has done in the past few years, Auburn played man to man most of the second half and held WSU to 80 yards on 38% passing. Against top 15 teams Oregon, Stanford and UCLA last year, Washington State averaged 423 yards per game and 3 touchdowns – Auburn held them to 349 yards and one touchdown. So don’t be alarmed by the passing yards Auburn gave up – instead be impressed with the adjustments and how the defense got better as the game went along.
5. Conditioning was not a problem for Auburn. On a very hot and muggy night in Auburn, the visiting team ran 88 plays. Auburn played 51 players during the game and rotated defensive linemen every few days. New strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell deserves a lot of credit – as the game went along Auburn was the better conditioned team.
6. The real star of the game was Montravious Adams. The stat line for the freshman defensive tackle shows one sack, one tackle for a loss and one quarterback hurry. But Adams was an absolute monster every time he was on the field, pushing the offensive lineman in front of him back into the backfield and causing problems for the WSU offense. When the quarterback got away, Adams was pursuing him in a way that most 300-pounders cannot. It was his first college game and he was a real difference maker. For the past few years Auburn’s defensive tackles have been mostly invisible, unless they were getting run over. Adams looks like he will be a future star for Auburn and we can’t wait to enjoy every minute of it. (Carl Lawson played a lot and got up field some, but WSU threw the ball out so quickly that the defensive ends were not a factor – against traditional offenses they will be needed.)
7. The Gus-o-meter was not up to full speed on Saturday evening. After the game Malzhan admitted that he held back the tempo due to it being Marshall’s first game and WSU doing some different things on defense. But also, the fast pace wasn’t needed on Saturday night and it will be in future games, so why pull it out yet? Before Auburn can go fast it must get more first downs. The offense is at its fastest when it gets a first down, goes straight to the line and snaps the ball. But Auburn was only 4 of 13 on third down conversions in the game.
The Arkansas State Red Wolves and their coach
Gus Malzhan Bryan Harsin come to Jordan-Hare stadium on Saturday night in what was once viewed as the Malzhan–Dyer return game. The Wolves crushed Arkansas Pine Bluff last weekend and put up huge offensive numbers, but don’t take that too seriously. Arkansas-PB is a I-AA team in the SWAC and one that suspended 12 of its starters for the game. A-PB only dressed about 40 players total. So the Red Wolves crushed an undermanned I-AA team; don’t be too impressed. They are still a good team, but the Wolves didn’t beat an evenly matched foe.
Keys to the game:
1) Auburn’s coaches are very familiar with the Arkansas State players and staff. Defensive coordinator John Thompson was at ASU last year on Malzhan’s staff. So Thompson and Malzhan know each other’s tendencies very well. How will each team use this knowledge? Will the familiarity lead to problems for Malzhan’s offense against a defense that saw it every day? Or will Malzahn’s knowledge of the defense lead to Auburn exploiting the positions where it has an advantage in speed or talent?
2) Against most smaller-conference teams Auburn would have a distinct edge on the line of scrimmage. But ASU has the best offensive and defensive line in the Sun Belt and returns plenty of talented and experienced players. Auburn’s defensive line will need to focus on stopping the run – if ASU has less than 200 yards rushing, Auburn should be in good position to win.
3) Special teams is the one place where Auburn has a huge edge. ASU was the worst team in the country in net punting last year and was also poor in the return and kick coverage game. Auburn needs to dominate special teams in this game. Look for Tre Mason and Chris Davis to have big games and be the difference makers for Auburn.
The Wishbone Power Rankings (not a lot of movement this week):
Alabama (that offensive line will get better but will still be a problem)
The Very Good:
LSU (the most impressive team last week)
Tennessee (look out for Bobby Petrino and WKU!)
You can listen to Van and John’s even more in-depth analysis of Auburn’s performance against Washington State / preview of the Arkansas State game here. And hey, you can also meet Van this weekend. Like John did last week, he’ll be signing copies of Decades of Dominance at the AU Bookstore Saturday from 2-4 p.m.
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.
Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.
* Football rankings guru Richard Billingsley says Auburn should claim century-old crown: ‘My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship’
* Auburn wore green jerseys TWICE in the 1930s
* Auburn coach car endorsements of yesteryear
* Gus Malzahn in college
* That time a cow won Miss Auburn