One coach finished the regular season as one of the hottest names in the coaching carousel while another watched his $32 million buyout become an actual topic of conversation.
To say that Jeff Brohm and Gus Malzahn were worlds apart in terms of perception just 4 weeks ago would be an understatement.
To say that they belonged on the same field together on Friday would be the understatement of the year.
They didn’t. Sixty minutes — or maybe 7 minutes — made us forget that Brohm dazzled the college football world with his affinity for trick plays and dialing up long touchdowns for Rondale Moore. And that Malzahn watched his preseason top-10 team torpedo offensively into a 7-win regular season.
Brohm seemingly earned the lifetime contract at Purdue after rebuilding the dormant program into the fun, upset-capable team that 4-star recruits suddenly wanted to play for. Malzahn seemingly earned himself the hottest seat in America heading into 2019.
Yeah, about that.
Friday was the first stop on Malzahn’s revenge tour, and Brohm was the unfortunate victim.
It wasn’t just that Malzahn entered the Music City Bowl after a regular season in which the offensive-minded coach watched his unit suffer. It was that he watched his offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey, leave Auburn to join Les Miles at Kansas. And so, for the first time since 2015, Malzahn was back calling plays. He bet on himself and newly hired 20-something offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham.
What Malzahn did with that opportunity — and against one of the sport’s up-and-coming offensive minds — was even better than he could’ve drawn it up in a 63-14 victory over the Boilermakers.
We got a sense of that from the jump when, on the first third down of the game, Jarrett Stidham did a little quarterback draw fake and threw to Boobie Whitlow for an in stride 66-yard touchdown. All afternoon, Stidham was comfortable, precise and efficient. Those are 3 words that didn’t describe the preseason Heisman Trophy candidate’s 2018 season.
Malzahn, who took plenty of hit for Stidham’s regression, made us wonder what the quarterback’s final season at Auburn could’ve looked like had Friday’s game plan been intact all year. And to be fair, it wasn’t like Malzahn did a complete 180. There was still misdirection with pop passes, swing passes and zone reads. Duh. We knew that would be the case.
It almost looked like Purdue, which clearly didn’t have the athletes to hang with the Tigers, didn’t watch a minute of film on Auburn. But in a way, that was sort of true. There wasn’t any film of Malzahn calling plays with this roster. There was more balance. There were more players wide open. That’s scheming. That’s coaching.
Whatever it was, it was dominant. Keep in mind that Auburn hit 30 points against 2 Power 5 teams all year. On Friday, here are some of Auburn’s numbers from the first half:
- 56 points (bowl game first-half record)
- Auburn record for points in any half
- 335 passing yards
- Darius Slayton: 3 catches, 160 yards, 2 touchdowns
- 8 drives, 7 touchdowns (one was a kneeldown to end the half, plus Auburn had a defensive TD)
So yeah. Dominant. It looked like Auburn was playing against a high school team. For an Auburn team that was as guilty as anyone of playing down to its competition, it was as loud of a statement as Malzahn could’ve made heading into the offseason.
Yes, Purdue was without two key defensive players in Cornel Jones (team leader in tackles for loss) and Lorenzo Neal (team leader in forced fumbles), but that wasn’t the difference on Friday. The difference was Malzahn. He was different.
When Slayton, who had 2 touchdown catches to that point, didn’t get position on a Purdue defender to catch his third touchdown with Auburn leading by 35, Malzahn put him on blast when he got to the sideline (Slayton got that third touchdown catch a few minutes later). That was the look of a man on a mission.
And why wouldn’t he be? Malzahn knows he’s entering a make-or-break year. The athletic director who hired him is gone, while fans and Auburn’s deep-pocketed boosters clearly have less confidence in him than ever. How fitting that the ever-stubborn coach got a chance to be in complete control, and he responded by steamrolling everyone in sight.
Perhaps even more fitting was that Malzahn went back to his signature look — the vest with the long-sleeve turtleneck underneath — for the first time in 22 games. Consider that a subtle way of Malzahn getting back to his roots.
Will Friday’s performance change the narrative with Malzahn? In the immediate future, absolutely. That’s why Malzahn showed his team the last 10 minutes of last year’s loss to UCF and stressed the importance of how a bowl game can shape offseason perception. The discussion right now would be different had Purdue won 28-3. The pro-Malzahn crowd will point to this game and turning to a true dual-threat quarterback as reasons he can bounce back and keep his job beyond 2019.
But in the long-term future, Friday’s blowout win will be a distant memory if Auburn falls in the 2019 opener to Justin Herbert and Oregon. We’ll immediately go back to talking about why Malzahn’s seat is on fire, and that he needs to compete for an SEC West Division title to save his job.
For a day, though, Malzahn reminded us that he’s not going down without a fight. The Music City Bowl was a first-round knockout. Haymaker after haymaker, he delivered the ultimate “where’s that been all year” performance.
Malzahn has more haymakers to land and more fights to win to stick around on The Plains.
But he couldn’t have delivered a more emphatic opening round.