Auburn football: Malzahn must open up offense if Tigers want to be contenders
It isn’t often that a team wins by 41 points and you think to yourself, “They could’ve played much better.”
Yet that is where we stand after Auburn’s 51-10 decisive victory over Arkansas on Saturday. The Razorbacks, who looked downright awful at times, kept the score reasonable heading into halftime, especially considering that the Tigers scored two touchdowns on their first six offensive plays.
A 17-0 lead at the half is nothing to sneeze at, but the Tigers, with a chance to put the game away extremely early, stalled on offense. Bo Nix looked a bit shaky, missing quite a few open receivers and having miscommunications at other times. In short-yardage situations, Gus Malzahn, in his stubborn way, stuck to snapping the ball in the shotgun formation, and the Razorbacks ate it up. Despite a first 30 minutes in which Auburn dominated in almost every way, it seemed that the game was still on the brink.
That wasn’t the case, of course. After a three-and-out by the Tigers and an Arkansas field goal, Auburn’s offense finally woke up, with Nix finding Seth Williams for a 48-yard touchdown pass and then, just 22 seconds later, dropping a nice pass into the arms of Anthony Schwartz. The rout was on.
Yet Malzahn and company can’t be complacent. With the schedule awaiting the Tigers, including a showdown in Baton Rouge on Saturday in what should be a top-10 matchup, there will be no time for the offense to settle in. The other Tigers, led by Joe Burrow, can put points on the board quickly, and in a nightmare situation for Malzahn, it might be a game of keeping up with the Bayou Bengals offense.
If there was ever a time for the guru to completely empty all the offensive plays he has stored up in his mind, it will be Saturday. Sure, getting Nix comfortable and helping him succeed with quick slants and outs will be important, but for Auburn to have a chance, he will have to throw caution to the wind, even with a true freshman quarterback who struggled in his first tough road test at Florida.
Maybe Malzahn kept the offense extremely vanilla on Saturday knowing that his team would be able to control the line of scrimmage on defense and continue to make stops, giving the offense a chance to calmly pull away. It seemed to be the case — has any Auburn fan not yelled at another run up the middle on first down? — yet that plan won’t fly against LSU, Georgia or Alabama.
All hands will need to be on deck, from the five running backs listed on the depth chart to Williams, Schwartz, Sal Cannella and, mysteriously missing from the game against the Razorbacks, Eli Stove. Nix will be asked to make plays unlike ever before, even against Oregon and Texas A&M. And if the Tigers can put up points and sustain long drives to help the defense, which will be battling an LSU offense that likes to go quick, we could be talking about an Auburn victory.
I can’t see into Malzahn’s head and know what he is thinking, but if he wants to walk out of Tiger Stadium on Saturday with Auburn’s first win in Baton Rouge since 1999, a slow start offensively will not get the job done, nor will play-calling that leans on the conservative side.
For Auburn to win, Malzahn needs his best players to be at their absolute best and have a “screw it, we are going for the throat” attitude. Otherwise, it will just be another ho-hum loss.