Death Valley was a barren tract of land for Jarrett Stidham on Saturday.
Auburn’s quarterback needed protection from Clemson’s ferocious defensive line. He found none. Stidham was sacked a staggering 11 times, as Auburn fell to the defending national champion 14-6.
The sack total was one away from a single-game school record for Clemson, which totaled 14 tackles for loss in all.
“That was too many sacks, but we have to be able to run the football a little better, too,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said in his postgame press conference. “We can’t be in as many obvious passing situations. There were a lot of third-down-and-8-plus-(yard) situations that were tough.”
But even on the few occasions Stidham was upright, Auburn’s offense might as well have been moving in slow motion. It ended with just 117 yards (79 passing, 38 rushing) of total offense, the worst showing of Malzahn’s 12-year career as a college coach.
Things only got worse as the game progress.
Auburn had only 15 yards in the second half. It gained 6 yards in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t get it done offensively tonight and I think that’s obvious,” Malzahn said, according to 247Sports. “Sure, Clemson is a great defense but we didn’t get it done. … But we will get better, just like we did last year. This will be a game that we can play one of the top defenses. Any time you do that it shows deficiencies and shows things you need to work on or improve on and all of the above.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his defense’s showing took him back to his own time as a player three decades ago.
“I feel like I’m back at Alabama in 1988 after that one,” Swinney said. “What a tough, gritty game. That’s such a reflection of the heart of our guys. You have to find ways to win games, especially early in the season, and I’m just really proud of our guys, particularly on defense. Hats off to those guys. Eleven sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Our defensive line controlled the game. Really, all three levels of the defense played well. I can’t say enough good things.”
Despite the issues the offensive line had keeping him out of harm’s way, Stidham took ownership for Auburn’s abysmal offensive performance.
“They played their butts off just like everybody else, and we just didn’t execute. There were a lot of things I know I could have done a lot better tonight,” said Stidham, who completed 13 of 24 attempts for 79 yards and ended with minus-42 yards rushing as a result of the sacks. “You know, it kind of starts with me, because I’m the one person that has the ball in my hands every play. … But we just have to execute better all around. We’re going to regroup, and we’re going to be a lot better. ”
It marked the second straight week Auburn’s offensive line was a sieve of sorts. In its opener against Georgia Southern, it allowed three sacks and eight tackles for loss. With Saturday’s stats factored in, Auburn has given up 14 sacks and 22 tackles for loss in just two games.
And it’s the second straight season the line has gotten off to a slow start.
Through the first three games in 2016, Auburn had permitted 22 tackles for loss, most in the FBS, along with nine sacks. But it settled into a groove over its final nine games of last season.
Malzahn sees a similar turnaround in store this fall.
“We’re going to be a good offense before this is all said and done,” Malzahn said. “I promise you that.”
Stidham, refusing to be discouraged, made a similar vow.
“Obviously you want to come out here and put up a lot of points against a great team and win, you know? It just didn’t bounce our way tonight,” Stidham said. “We’re going to look at the film (Sunday) and get better from it.”