Forde-Yard Dash: Is Gus Malzahn the Luckiest Man Alive?

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (suitcases sold separately at New Mexico, where the Lobos could be looking at nothing but road games this season):

MORE DASH: Count on Nothing | Taking Note of Rutgers | Respect for Sun Belt

FOURTH QUARTER: IS GUS MALZAHN THE LUCKIEST MAN ALIVE?

Auburn coach and Waffle House devotee Gus Malzahn (31) has been smothered and covered in blessed fortune during his eight-year tenure at the Loveliest Little Village on the Plains. Good breaks? He’s had more than his share. Chalk it up to clean living or whatever, but if Gus had ordinary luck he would be long gone as the coach of the Tigers, and several million dollars poorer. (While still quite rich.)

This season, as his team has wheezed its way to a 3–2 record that could realistically be 1–4, Malzahn seems to have cashed in every chip at the Football Fate Casino. As one questionable officiating call after another has gone Auburn’s way, it only serves as a reminder of all the other times Malzahn has gotten just the right break at just the right time. (We could go back to his days as offensive coordinator in 2010, when Auburn won the national title in no small part because Michael Dyer barely was not down against Oregon, and because Cam Newton barely kept his eligibility. But let’s keep this head coach-specific.)

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Assuredly, Auburn fans can produce their own laundry list of unlucky breaks and bad calls in the last eight seasons. But the breaks that have gone their way are numerous, momentous and memorable. The Dash compendium of Gus’s good luck:

Nov. 16, 2013: The Prayer at Jordan-Hare (32). Having blown a 17-point lead to Georgia and now trailing 38–37 with 35 seconds left, Auburn faced a fourth-and-18 at its own 27-yard line. In desperation mode, quarterback Nick Marshall dropped back and chucked it as far as he could, into double coverage, in the direction of Ricardo Louis. The play was destined to fail—until Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped the ball away from teammate Tray Matthews, who was in perfect position to either intercept or simply knock the ball down and end the game. The deflection landed in the hands of Louis, who ran untouched into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

Nov. 30, 2013: The Kick Six (33). The epic winning play itself wasn’t really lucky—it was preparedness meeting opportunity. But there was some Malzahn Magic before the 109-yard field goal return.

Start with the fact that Alabama missed four field goals in the game, and the dysfunction in that department also prompted Nick Saban to go for a fourth-and-short from the Auburn 13-yard line in the fourth quarter and not make it. Then there was the fact that a second was put back on the clock at the end of the game, setting up the Kick Six—the first in a series of last-second clock calls that have gone Gus’s way. Putting a tick back on the clock gave Alabama the chance to try a futile, 57-yard field goal—and then gave Chris Davis a chance to run it all the way back into Iron Bowl lore.

Sept. 24, 2016: The Les Miles Goodbye Game (34). On the strength of six Daniel Carlson field goals, Auburn was clinging to an 18–13 lead over LSU. The bayou Tigers were driving late, but an illegal shift pushed them back to the 15-yard line with time running off the clock. LSU rushed to the line and snapped the ball to quarterback Danny Etling, who rolled right and threw what looked like the winning touchdown. But upon review, the clock had expired before LSU got the play off. LSU fired Les Miles the next day.

Nov. 30, 2019: Tua is out, Mac Jones is in (35). Two weeks earlier, Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered the hip dislocation that ended his college career. That meant Jones’s first SEC start would be in the Iron Bowl at Auburn. Jones played well for the most part, but he also served up two pick-sixes—and the second of those was a 100-yard fluke. Jones was throwing a short route into the end zone for Najee Harris out of the backfield, but threw it behind Harris’s back. He reached back with his right hand and deflected the ball right to Zakoby McClain, who returned it all the way.

This was another game that featured a clock review that went Auburn’s way. Officials put a second back on the clock at the end of the first half that allowed Anders Carlson to nail a 52-yard field goal, in a game that was decided by three points. That play led to a rule change, which said that a team cannot line up and successfully snap the ball with just one second on clock.

Pretty much all of 2020: Refs bail out Auburn (36).

It started in the season opener against Kentucky, when a clear Wildcats touchdown in the final seconds of the first half was not signaled on the field and somehow not overturned upon review. A subsequent Kentucky run was stuffed, and quarterback Terry Wilson then threw a pick-six—but that was overturned on an Auburn targeting call. The entire possession was a wash, but Kentucky should have had the touchdown and a halftime lead. The Tigers went on to win 29–13.

Two weeks later, Auburn was about to lose to underdog Arkansas. Hurriedly trying to spike the ball and set up a winning field goal, quarterback Bo Nix fumbled the snap and then spiked it backward, which should have been a fumble. It was not called a fumble, and Anders Carlson nailed the winning kick.

And last Saturday, inside the final six minutes of the game against Mississippi, Auburn got one more break. Ole Miss had just scored to take a 28–27 lead, and its kickoff bounced toward return man Shaun Shivers at the Auburn 9-yard line. Slow-motion replay showed the ball appeared to touch Shivers’s hand, but he let it go into the end zone for what was called a touchback. Ole Miss players hustled down and dove on the ball, to no avail. Four minutes later, Auburn scored the winning touchdown. Later replays showed what happened, which prompted passive-aggressive Ole Miss provocateur Lane Kiffin to retweet someone ripping the refs for blowing the call.

Monday night, the SEC sent out a release acknowledging that the game should have been stopped for a slow-motion replay review. It was not. And the SEC also said it is fining Kiffin $25,000. Earlier in the day, after a phone call with the SEC office to discuss the play, Kiffin said this at his weekly press conference: “I've had to take about a five-minute power yoga class before I walked in here and said what I really want to.” Then Monday night, Kiffy went back on Twitter and asked where he can get enough pennies to pay the fine that way.

Meanwhile, the Gus Bus wobbles on in search of its next moment of divine providence.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Don’t look now, but the state of Indiana (37) is off to a glorious start—and we’re not talking about basketball. Both Indiana and Purdue were upset winners Saturday, the Hoosiers winning a thriller over Penn State and the short-handed Boilermakers beating Iowa. Last time the two of them both started Big Ten play 1–0? It was 2001.

But it could get better. Both are favored this weekend—Indiana by 12 1/2 at Rutgers, Purdue by seven at Illinois. Last time they both started 2–0 in Big Ten play? Try 1976.

Now add one more layer and it really gets crazy. There is a third Power 5 school in the state, a small Catholic college in South Bend. Notre Dame is 5–0 and favored by 20 at Georgia Tech. Last time Notre Dame started a season 6–0 and both Indiana and Purdue were 2–0 in their conference? Never. Hasn’t happened. But, hey, the Hoosiers and Boilermakers have only been playing in the same league since 1901.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Brian Brohm (38), Purdue. The Boilermakers quarterback coach was thrust into head-coaching duties when his big brother, Jeff, was waylaid by COVID-19. The biggest complication there: Jeff is his own play-caller, which meant that Brian was in charge of the call sheet for the first time. The result: a 24–20 Purdue win in which the Boilers executed two long fourth-quarter drives to pull off the comeback. “I thought Brian did a very good job, and I had great confidence that he would,” Jeff Brohm said Monday. “He’s played the quarterback position for a long time. He's been with me, as well. We've got the same blood. We kind of think alike a little bit even though he's much calmer and cool and collected than me, which is a great quality to have.”

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

James Franklin (39), Penn State. To repeat an ancient life lesson: If someone is giving you something for free, be wary. Indiana gave Penn State a free touchdown and the Nittany Lions foolishly accepted it, giving the Hoosiers the chance to keep the game alive, tie it in regulation and win it in overtime. It wasn’t a great day on the sidelines for a guy who is a master program builder but sometimes an iffy in-game coach.

POINT AFTER

The Dash went nowhere this week, a sign of the COVID times, but there were some wings to smoke at home and some beer to drink with them. A buddy sent down an assortment of Wisconsin brews, and the choice was a Snake Hollow IPA (40) from Potosi Brewing Company. Get yourself a six pack and thank The Dash later. 

MORE DASH: Count on Nothing | Taking Note of Rutgers | Respect for Sun Belt