- Gus Malzahn is undoubtedly tired of trying to explain what's wrong with Auburn's offense, but Saturday's loss shows the coach still has some explaining to do.
When Auburn hired Gus Malzahn as its head coach at the end of the 2012 season, it was expecting that high-powered, quick-strike offense when he was the offensive coordinator for the national championship team two years before would come along with him, keeping the Tigers squarely on Alabama’s heels for years to come.
Even when Jarrett Stidham transferred from Baylor in 2017, it gave the War Eagle faithful hope that it would never see the struggles from the Sean White/Jeremy Johnson days that had Malzahn on the hot seat.
Fast forward to Saturday night when Auburn was dominated by Mississippi State 23–9: The offense is not just in need of a reboot, it might call for a complete teardown and overhaul.
This loss was no anomaly. This has been a trend, years in the making.
Malzahn is no doubt tired of hearing and talking about the struggles, saying this week he was sounding like a “broken record” when trying to pinpoint what’s wrong on that side of the ball.
Auburn’s offense has not finished in the top 10 of total offense once in the last five years with Malzahn at the helm. The Tigers finished 11th in 2013, 17th in 2014, 94th in 2015, 42nd in 2016 and 26th last season.
As a reminder, Auburn was seventh during its title season with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
On the Tigers’ first six possessions of the game, they punted three times, made a field goal, missed a field goal and fumbled, totaling 79 yards in the first half and justifying their total offense ranking of 97th.
Mississippi State was also to blame for Auburn’s struggles, keeping the offense on the field with lengthy, ball-controlled drives. The Bulldogs resembled some triple-option teams, possessing the ball for 41 minutes.
It was clear from the beginning the Bulldogs had no intention of letting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald throw the ball, considering he completed less than 50% of his passes his first five games.
Instead, Fitzgerald used his legs, setting the SEC’s record for career rushing yards by a quarterback, previously held by Tim Tebow. Fitzgerald ran for 195 yards on 28 carries, all part of the Bulldogs’ 349-yard effort on the ground.
His last run, a 21-yard scamper on a quarterback counter play up the middle for a touchdown, was indicative of the night. The Bulldogs continued to abuse the Auburn defense all night with that same play. Fitzgerald’s backfield counterpart, running back Kylin Hill, also got in on the action and chipped in with 126 yards.
A staple of Auburn’s offense in years past was the running game, grinding teams with a read-option game that confused defenses and milking the clock when they were ahead. Now, Auburn has failed to reach 100 yards rushing in its last three games, even against the likes of Arkansas and Southern Miss.
Stidham completed 19 of his 38 passes for 214 yards, most of those coming in the second half when Auburn tried in vain to get its stagnant offense going.
The simple concepts that most successful offenses use to win haven’t come to fruition yet this season for the Tigers. As the third top-10 team to lose on Saturday, Auburn turned the ball over twice and was 3–14 on third down.
The offensive line didn’t do Stidham any favors either as he was repeatedly hit on nearly every drop-back, and receivers struggled to get open downfield.
So where does Auburn go from here?
Stidham simply needs time to throw the ball, and Auburn has rarely opened holes for its stable of young running backs. The defense is talented enough to keep the Tigers in games, but without help from the other side of the ball, calls for Malzahn’s job will start to grow even louder.
There are opportunities for Auburn to get back its confidence on offense. Next week comes a visit from Tennessee and on Oct. 20, the Tigers visit one of the nation’s worst defenses in Ole Miss.
But it only gets tougher from there with Texas A&M, Georgia and the Iron Bowl against Alabama looming in November.