The story of the Auburn slide – playing for a national championship in January 2014, winning eight or fewer games each season since – can be told in brief by the rivalry with Georgia.
A severe case of scoreboard anemia had befallen Auburn, particularly puzzling given coach Gus Malzahn’s billing as an offensive shaman. Those past three games against the Bulldogs, Auburn accumulated but 27 points, total. The 13-7 loss last year – in which the Bulldogs got their only touchdown off an interception and saw Auburn go without a first down in the second half – was of particular alarm.
That game has been a festering splinter in the team psyche ever since.
“It really bothers us when we think that our defense played lights out. We gave them the touchdown they won on,” junior running back Kerryon Johnson said. “From an offensive standpoint, when we think of that game, we definitely have a bad taste in our mouth knowing that we could have still won if we had taken care of the ball and eliminated some simple mistakes.”
With another Georgia game on the docket Saturday, it is time to survey the offense and wonder whether Auburn is getting back to being Auburn again.
Malzahn certainly feels better about Saturday’s prospects than those of a season ago. Last year, his quarterback, Sean White, played with a bum shoulder and appeared severely limited. This time, sophomore Jarrett Stidham enters hale in body and statistic (leading the SEC in completion percentage and ranking third in passing efficiency).
As a year ago, talented back Kamryn Pettway is out with an injury. But Johnson, his replacement, is gaining 124 yards per game and has rushed already for 15 touchdowns.
“Every year is different. I will say this, we are healthier as a team (this year),” Malzahn said earlier this week. “Our starting quarterback is healthy. I couldn’t say that the last two years. I feel good about where we’re at going into this game.”
An unsettled offensive line has led to some interesting moments. There has been five starting-lineup combinations along the line this season. The season has been a continual line dance for senior Austin Golson, who has shuttled between four different positions. Only one lineman, Braden Smith, has been anchored to the same spot for every game this season.
The cracks in the line certainly showed against Clemson in Game No. 2, when Auburn suffered a mind-boggling 11 sacks in a 14-6 loss. It could only get better, and more stable, from there.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this many new faces and this many guys up front,” Malzahn said. “It’s a tribute to those guys that we’ve been as successful running the football and even throwing it and protecting with the new lineups.”
Since that Clemson game, Auburn has begun to regain a look that Malzahn recognizes. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s unit has put up 42 or more points in five of six SEC games, winning all five. Balance – the Tigers are one of five FBS teams to average more than 220 yards rushing and passing – is key.
“They’ve bought into what Chip’s doing, and you can see them getting more confidence each week. They’ve improved and they’ve been balanced,” Malzahn said.
“I think our O-line has played solid pretty much all year. I think our greatest growth,” Johnson said, “is our receivers are making even more plays down the field (as in nine pass plays of 50 or more yards, and 14 of 40 or more yards).
“When you do that, that’s huge. When they’re able to get open against man coverage – a lot of teams are starting to play us like that, making us beat them with the pass – and we’ve been able to do that. When we do that, this offense is very hard to stop as we’ve shown. And we’re capable of putting up a lot of points.”
There is a formula at play here regarding the new OC – as production has increased, so has the faith in Lindsey.
“I think he’s grown a lot, but I also think he’s doing a lot of the same things that we started out doing – we’re just executing better,” Johnson said.
“A lot of early games we ourselves just didn’t execute. Obviously, the blame gets put on the coaches all the time. But we miss a block here, a penalty there, miss a pass protection here, drop a ball here, make a wrong read here – that blows up in our face more than play-calling does.”
Doesn’t seem that accountability is an issue, either.
And motivation won’t be lacking. Stinging from the Georgia losses of the past, the Tigers can think of no better opponent to use as proof of rebirth (well, maybe that other one across the state, too).
“I didn’t have the game I wanted to last year. I definitely think about that,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a lot of motivation. We really want this game. With the opportunity we have in front of us (still alive in the conference and national postseason scenarios), it only makes us want it more.
“Our team has a little bit different mindset than last year,” Malzahn said.
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