After the worst offensive performance in his dozen years at the college level, Gus Malzahn made a promise.
Auburn’s offense, he said, would improve. Come the end of the season, Malzahn said the Tigers’ offense would be humming along as well as it did, at times, last season.
It’s not as if the situation could get much worse than last Saturday.
In a 14-6 loss to Clemson, moving in a positive direction was a Herculean task for Auburn. It finished with just 117 total yards. And the longer the game went, the more challenging it became. In the second half, Auburn had 15 yards. Of that, only 6 came in the final period.
Perhaps the most conspicuous sign — and undoubtedly the most glaring — of its struggles: Auburn allowed almost twice as many sacks (11) as points it scored.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who had been on the sideline the first two games of the season, would move to the booth. Malzahn explained that was where Lindsey’s “comfort zone is,” as Lindsey also called plays from the booth the past two seasons as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator.
“It just feels like he can get a better feel for the defenses,” Malzahn said, “and everything that goes with that.”
The move was Lindsey’s idea, Malzahn said. All he did was give it his blessing.
Lindsey’s move upstairs was counterbalanced by offensive line coach Herb Hand’s coming out of the booth to the sideline.
“He thinks it’ll be a good thing for him to get around his offensive line up front,” Malzahn said before adding: “Those are the changes there, and I think (they) will definitely help.”
Malzahn said the reason for the alterations, besides the obvious breakdowns last Saturday, was simple: He sees issues. As a coach, it’s his job to solve them. But he shot down the assertion that Tuesday’s moves are “an overreaction” to one horrid showing.
“It’s just more of a reaction to what’s best. … Originally, (Lindsey) felt pretty strongly he needed to be down there with the quarterback and look him in the eye and all that,” Malzahn said. “But you learn and you look at things and what’s best, and he feels very confident that that’s going to help it, and I know it will. And then the fact that Herb will be down there with his offensive line, I think will help, too. As a coach, you just look for ways to help your team, and I really believe strongly that’ll happen.”
Despite those adjustments, it was one Malzahn didn’t reveal that was among the most noteworthy: He didn’t anticipate there being any reshuffling of the offensive line. Pressed by reporters as to why, Malzahn slightly backtracked.
“I said there probably won’t be changes,” he said. “We’ll see how practice goes. But we believe in our players, I’ll tell you that. They were put in some tough situations at times. I’ve got to do a better job. Our coaches have got to do a better job of putting our players in better situations. But we believe in those guys, and they are going to improve.”
The talent of Clemson’s defensive line is unquestioned; it might be the best in college football.
But Auburn’s problems protecting quarterback Jarrett Stidham predated last Saturday’s demolition.
In its season-opening win over Georgia Southern, Auburn allowed its visitors from the Sun Belt Conference to record three sacks and eight tackles for loss. The 7 sacks allowed per game is the worst in the FBS; the 14 sacks allowed overall are tied for the most in the FBS alongside Massachusetts. The difference is, the Minutemen have played three games.
Malzahn, however, was undeterred, and saw last week’s unmitigated disaster as a learning experience.
“We hadn’t had 11 sacks before. That’s a new thing for us,” Malzahn said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of putting our quarterback in some different situations. Obviously, when you’re going against a dominant defensive line (in) for-sure passing situations … (it’s challenging). All those things are correctable. And they will be corrected. It’s two games under our coordinator’s belt with our players.”
Yet the question of who actually is coordinating the offense, at least when it comes to calling plays on game day, is under scrutiny.
During a post-practice interview Sunday, Lindsey made it clear who sent in the plays in Saturday’s loss.
“I called every one of them,” he said, “the good and the bad ones.”
On Tuesday, Malzahn was asked if he had taken on more of a role in last week’s play calling given how emotional he appeared when television cameras cut to him on the sideline during offensive possessions.
His answer side-stepped the question.
“I was probably just as animated when we were on defense and special teams as I was offensively,” he said. “I am an emotional coach, and that’s just the way I am.”
The next question once again hit upon the play-calling dynamic: Is it difficult for Malzahn to let Lindsey take the lead?
“This is Chip’s deal, and he is going to do a great job moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We’ll communicate from time to time. But we’ve got a good plan moving forward, and like I said, we’re going to be better.”
A few hours after Tuesday’s press conference ended, Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for 247Sports, pointed out a discrepancy between Malzahn’s actions and his words.
Gus Malzahn, on the day OC Chip Lindsey was introduced to media, said he was retiring his offensive clipboard.
He still carries it. pic.twitter.com/RrDz9OC3EX
— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) September 12, 2017
Hours earlier, in a rare moment of verbose candidness from Malzahn, he admitted he was well-aware how upset the fan base was with the Tigers’ lackluster offense.
“From a fan’s standpoint, the frustration that they have, that I fully understand, is the way that we finished the season last year and then Saturday night (we) look the same,” Malzahn said. “So I get that. But I will say this: We are going to improve. We’re going to be a good offense, that is for sure; but that’s the frustration, and I understand that. So it’s natural to say that, and I get that, and I own that. But we are going to improve.”
Then he went on, never missing a beat.
“You’ve got to look at it from the big-picture standpoint that (Clemson is) one of the best teams in college football — if not the best. Could be,” Malzahn said. “We have a very good defense, we have a good kicking game and we’re going to improve on offense. Our goals are all still intact. We’re a good football team. Obviously, we didn’t get it done on one side of the football. That’s frustrating for me. It’s very frustrating for our coaches.
“But we have a team that has great leadership. We have a staff that is very close, and we’re going to put it in our rear view mirror and we’re going to move forward. Our mind is on Mercer. We’re going to play well, and we need to improve each week. We have the makings of a good football team.”
Malzahn very well could be right.
Auburn could turn it around and become a good, if not great, team this season. If that’s the case, the Clemson defeat will be a blip on the radar — an incredibly disappointing one for the fan base, but a blip nonetheless. At this point, Auburn can still achieve every one of its goals this season. The Clemson defeat means nothing in the grand scheme of the SEC race. Win out in the regular season and beat the SEC East champion in the conference title game, and the Tigers are a near-guarantee to be part of the College Football Playoff.
But if Malzahn can’t right the ship, and the Clemson loss is a harbinger of things to come, nothing else will matter.
Not Malzahn taking ownership of his team’s failures. Not his understanding of the fans’ frustrations. And not his willingness to come to the defense of his players and coaching staff.
If the season goes south, Stidham isn’t the only person around Auburn’s program who has to worry about avoiding sacks.
Malzahn might be next.