AUBURN, Ala. -- A half hour after No. 5 Auburn steamrolled No. 15 LSU 41-7 on Saturday, tight end C.J. Uzomah requested confirmation. The Tigers’ locker room was buzzing about quarterback Nick Marshall’s performance that night, and, seated against a wall in the bowels of Jordan-Hare Stadium, Uzomah recited Marshall’s stats to a slew of reporters.
“I heard he had 200-plus [yards] passing, 100-plus rushing?” Uzomah asked, looking around. “He definitely dominated today.”
Marshall, who amassed 326 yards of total offense with four touchdowns, has helped the Tigers improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2010. After being pegged as a one-trick pony in his first season as a starter, Marshall has emerged as a complete product this fall. Last week he delivered his second career game with at least 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards, and through Week 6 he has 1,147 total yards with 12 scores. Auburn hopes he can produce similar numbers in this week’s visit to No. 3 Mississippi State.
This is the kind of production Auburn fans envisioned when Marshall returned for his senior campaign. Last year he thrived in coach Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo, zone-read offense, but he did so primarily on the ground. His 82.2 rushing yards per game ranked fifth among FBS quarterbacks, but Marshall’s arm was not a true threat. He averaged 152 passing yards per game, 11th in the SEC.
During the offseason Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee worked to install balance. That started with a focus on fundamentals. Marshall is Malzahn’s first returning starting quarterback during his career as a college coach, and the 6-foot-1, 210-ponder worked diligently to hone his footwork and follow through. “I’m way better than I was last year,” Marshall said. “Coach Lashlee and coach Malzahn, they took time out with me throughout the offseason. They just focused on my footwork and me stepping through on my throws.”
On the surface Marshall’s numbers aren’t overwhelmingly different from those from last year. He has improved his yards per attempt (7.9 from 7.5), but dipped slightly in completion percentage (57.9 from 59.0). The difference is Marshall has become a scoring threat with his arm. He has thrown eight touchdowns with one pick this season. Through five games in 2013 he had four scores with four interceptions.
This year the Tigers are running on only 66 percent of their plays, exemplifying a renewed trust in the aerial attack. Marshall has a remained a productive runner. He is averaging 6.8 yards per carry, up from 5.2 through five games in 2013. Auburn defenders, who face Marshall each day in practice, say the quarterback’s evolution is obvious. “He has gotten a lot better,” defensive back Johnathan Ford said. “When you’re in coverage, you’ve got to read your keys real well. A lot of things [quarterbacks do] are like eye candy. They can take the ball and go up the field right then. You’ve got to focus in. And if you can throw and run, that’s a blessing.”
|Aug. 30||Arkansas||W, 45-21|
|Sept. 6||San Jose State||W, 59-13|
|Sept. 18||at Kansas State||W, 20-14|
|Sept. 27||Louisiana Tech||W, 45-17|
|Oct. 4||LSU||W, 41-7|
|Oct. 11||at Mississippi State||?|
|Oct. 25||South Carolina||?|
|Nov. 1||at Ole Miss||?|
|Nov. 8||Texas A&M||?|
|Nov. 15||at Georgia||?|
|Nov. 29||at Alabama||?|
Marshall has already come through with his arm in key moments this year. In Auburn’s 20-14 win at Kansas State on Sept. 13, he uncorked a 39-yard pass to wide receiver D'haquille Williams on third-and-nine that sealed the victory with just more than two minutes to play. That’s a throw Marshall likely wouldn’t have attempted last fall. On Saturday Malzahn let Marshall air it out early. He passed on three first downs in the first quarter alone, and that type of confidence is partially responsible for the team’s unbeaten start.
In fact, Malzahn’s offense looks more dangerous than ever. Auburn has scored 210 points through five games, second-most in school history. Not even last season’s offense, which finished in the top 15, had a more prolific start.
“Nick has grown as a player,” running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “Being in the system another year has definitely helped him out. But at the end of the day, Nick was dynamic last year, and he’s dynamic this year. He’s definitely more comfortable in the pocket.”
Marshall can add another feather in his cap this Saturday at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs claimed their highest ranking ever this week (No. 3) following an upset of then-No. 6 Texas A&M in Starkville. Now, Davis Wade Stadium will host its first matchup between top-five teams. Mississippi State will also be Auburn’s highest-ranked opponent since facing No. 1 Florida State in January’s BCS title game.
Lashlee said this week Auburn has yet to face a defense as tough as Mississippi State’s. The Bulldogs allow 328.2 passing yards per game, last in the SEC, but they also have nine interceptions, second in the league. Last week Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill threw three picks after tossing two in his previous five games. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said Marshall will be hard to contain.
“Like a chess player, they’re almost seeing it a couple moves in advance when you have that confidence,” Mullen said on the SEC teleconference. “He might not be setting you up for a specific play, but he’s setting you up down the road to take advantage of what you’re doing and how you’re defending them. That confidence in what’s going on, and that understanding of how he’s applying their offense to beat defenses, that’s much improved.”
Marshall knows what lies ahead with Mississippi State. He caught the first three quarters of the Bulldogs’ 48-31 victory on TV last Saturday before heading to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
However, even after the win over LSU, Marshall wasn’t ready to assess the stakes of his team’s impending matchup. After a week of upsets that may have registered on the Richter scale, five of the Tigers’ remaining foes sit in the top 15.
Meanwhile, the rest of the SEC hopes Marshall is finished developing. A prominent narrative this preseason was the SEC’s lack of proven quarterbacks. Somehow, leading Auburn to the national championship game wasn’t enough proof of Marshall’s ability. Now the senior looks like a star.
The rest of the SEC might be surprised at this new and improved version of Marshall, but his teammates aren’t. This is what the Tigers expected all along.
“It doesn’t feel any different,” Auburn receiver Sammie Coates said. “He’s just getting in his rhythm.”