No. 5 Auburn's running game appears in good hands
The Tigers produced 302 rushing yards and gobbled up yards in bunches against Arkansas in the second half of their first game without Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason. Artis-Payne ran for 177 yards, Corey Grant gained 87 and both scored touchdowns, prompting coach Gus Malzahn to call them ''Tailback 1 and 1A.''
''I read everything that everybody puts out about how they don't know about how the running game is going to be,'' Artis-Payne said afterward. ''We made it through and we're going to be all right.''
Auburn's quest for offensive balance with Nick Marshall and an improved receiving corps make it a longshot to duplicate last season's feat when the Tigers became the first Southeastern Conference team to lead the nation in rushing.
It's no coincidence that the ground game took off when Marshall returned from suspension in the second half after getting mostly stymied for two quarters. Marshall is one of the more dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.
Defenses have to account for that aspect of his game on every play since Marshall ran for 1,000-plus yards last season. He scored on a 19-yard run on his first possession.
''Obviously Nick adds another element to the run game in a way that, when he's back there, linebackers, defensive ends, secondary players, everybody is kind of keyed on him differently than they would if he wasn't in the game,'' offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. ''That probably has something to do with it. At the same time we'd like to think we're able to wear them down a little bit.''
The ''1 and 1A'' situation might change as the season progresses. Both those backs logged 100-yard games last season before Mason had his first in Game 4.
Then he finished with six in a row, including a 304-yard game in the SEC championship game against Missouri.
Malzahn said Grant and Artis-Payne could swap roles from game to game.
Artis-Payne was the workhorse in Game 1 with 26 carries. Grant had only 10 runs but the speedster also showed he can run between the tackles.
''Last year, he was primarily outside,'' Malzahn said of Grant. ''Now, he's really doing a solid job with his inside running. He'll get more and more comfortable as the season goes on. What I liked about Corey is he finished runs. He was looking to get his pads low and looking to finish and run people over.
''Him and Cameron Artis-Payne both. That was the thing from the running back standpoint that I was proud of.''
Like the tailback pecking order, Auburn's offensive modus operandi is likely still evolving.
Auburn mostly passed in the first half with backup Jeremy Johnson but successfully changed gears with Marshall and outscored Arkansas 24-0 after halftime.
''We kind of had two different sets going into the game because we knew some things about the defense,'' tight end C.J. Uzomah said. ''Case in point, Nick's touchdown run. We had practiced that play a lot and we knew it would be there. We knew the defense would be a little different when Nick came in to where we would be able to run a certain amount of plays.
''I definitely think we have complete faith in his passing ability. He's able to do incredible things with his feet to open up passes. I think you'll definitely see a little more of his arm.''