September 23, 2014

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found plenty to dislike in the offensive execution at Kansas State last week, but he doesn't want quarterback Nick Marshall taking more blame than he deserves as his team prepares to host Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

The fifth-ranked Tigers' 359 yards in the 20-14 victory over the then-No. 20 Wildcats marked the fewest Auburn has produced in 17 games under Malzahn. Marshall entered the season on many short lists of potential Heisman Trophy candidates after leading the Tigers to the national title game, and his coach said he's still coming through by the most important standard.

''The bottom line is our quarterback wins, he knows how to win,'' Malzahn said Tuesday. ''If you compare him to all the other quarterbacks around the country when the game's on the line we got the best guy. He'll continue to work but we have a lot of confidence in him.''

Against Kansas State, Marshall passed for 231 yards and rushed for 46 but threw an interception and had several throws deflected at the line. The receivers also had some drops and Malzahn's offense didn't look nearly as unstoppable as it did late last season.

Marshall, who was suspended for the first half of the opener against Arkansas, isn't ranked among the SEC's top 10 passers. He has completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 382 yards.

''I know for whatever reason the focus is always on our quarterback and, `What's wrong with Nick?''' Malzahn said. ''There's not a whole lot wrong with Nick. There's a couple things that we expect him to be really, really good at and if we're not we're going to get on him, but what the casual eye doesn't see is everything around him needs to be right. Need to be at the right depth, we need to have the right protection, everything needs to be right.''

Auburn's hurry-up offense didn't really hit its stride last season until after a switch to a heavy reliance on the zone read following the lone regular-season loss, to LSU.

Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are harping on fixing execution and not making big changes this time.

Marshall is the first starting quarterback Malzahn has had return for a second season as a college coach, so he already knows the things he does best.

When Auburn (3-0) needed a first down to run out the clock in the final minutes last Thursday, Auburn let Marshall throw. The result was a 39-yard completion to D'haquille Williams on third and 9.

The Tigers were limited to 128 yards on the ground, the second-fewest of the brief Malzahn era behind the Mississippi State game in 2013. Tailback Cameron Artis-Payne produced just 63 yards on 22 carries.

Lashlee's blunt assessment: ''Well, we didn't execute worth a (damn).''

''We just didn't play well,'' he said. The Wildcats ''had a lot to do with that, but when you watch the film, on almost every play you can say, `That's not what we do. That's not our brand of football.'

''The big positive is we can learn from a win against a really good team on the road. Any time you win on the road against a good team, you'll never take it for granted. You'll be very happy with that, but it felt a lot like the Mississippi State game last year.''

That's when Marshall passed for a career-high 339 yards to compensate for a sputtering running game. After the next game, Auburn revamped its approach and the offense wound up leading the nation in rushing.

This time, Malzahn can take it as a victory of sorts that Auburn got the win even without the offense not at its best.

''Last year at this time, we wouldn't have won that game,'' he said. ''But our guys found a way to win and in some areas it was a good wake-up call.''

Louisiana Tech (2-2) was on its way to a third straight win last Saturday but was outscored 20-7 in the fourth quarter of a 30-27 loss to visiting Northwestern State.

The Bulldogs threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles for their most turnovers since also having five in a 58-10 loss at No. 2 LSU in 2007. That defeat is part of a 15-game losing streak against ranked opponents.

"You do not have long to wallow in self-pity. You have 24 hours to enjoy a win and 24 hours to mourn a loss. That one is over and you have to get ready for Auburn," coach Skip Holtz said. "I think we are playing an unbelievable football team. I have great respect for their staff, I know the quality of staff that they have. I think they are doing an unbelievable job.

"We have watched a lot of film from 2013 and I do not think it is close how much better they are this year than what they were a year ago. It is scary to think that a year ago they competed for the national championship and yet they are a lot better than they were a year ago."

Auburn has won the last eight meetings and is 11-0-1 in the all-time series.

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