Auburn football: Tigers 2-0 but still seeking offensive identity
There is no secret what Auburn coach Gus Malzahn likes to do with his offense: Run the ball to set up the trickery and the aerial attack. That was the case with Nick Marshall at quarterback in 2013 and with Jarrett Stidham in 2017.
That approach isn’t exactly working this season.
The Tigers were unable to run the ball in the first half of Saturday’s game against Tulane, gaining only 20 rushing yards. The offense, true freshman Bo Nix included, struggled. The offensive line — that should be improved with all five starters returning — is iffy at best, Boobie Whitlow can’t seem to hold onto the ball and the wide receivers corps is becoming extremely thin.
So where do the Tigers, and Malzahn, go from here?
The trust that Malzahn showed in Nix, especially when backed up against the end zone in back-to-back possessions in the second quarter, was interesting. When the coach (and now offensive coordinator) would usually try to establish the running game, Malzahn called five passes in six plays. One drive went for a three-and-out, the other saw Auburn gain one first down before punting.
It is expected that Nix, as a freshman, would have his bumps and bruises early in the year, but everyone expected Whitlow and company to pick up the slack and give him time to grow into the position. Without a running game, opposing defenses can pin their ears back and rush Nix. It didn’t come back to haunt the Tigers against the Green Wave, but it surely will against tougher defenses once SEC play begins.
Going back to the offensive line, this is a veteran group with five seniors, so excuses are not acceptable. Some could look at the recruiting of former assistant coach Herb Hand as a problem, but he has been gone for a few years now and everything falls on current offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who has been known to help form a formidable offensive front.
Yet, it all falls back to the running back position. Whitlow, right now, can’t be trusted to hold onto the ball and his backups, Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers, haven’t proven themselves to be worthy replacements.
This all smells trouble for the Tigers. Perhaps not against Kent State, the next opponent, but after that conference play kicks in with a road test Sept. 21 at Texas A&M. Malzahn will need to find something that clicks for Auburn to prove that a.) it deserves its top 10 ranking and b.) the Tigers will stay in the hunt for a shot at the SEC title game Atlanta.
If not, all the magic that occurred in the opening win against Oregon and the goodwill that resulted will quickly disappear.