A Much Needed Win, But Questions Remain About Offense
USA TODAY Sports
Columnist Cole Locascio spoke on the Track ‘Em Tigers podcast last week in Episode Five and was quick to throw caution to the wind while I and host Derrick Roberts weren’t so sure of his lofty expectations for an Auburn blowout of Missouri. The Tigers were a 19-point favorite and easily covered the spread with a 51–14 beat down of Mizzou.
Kevin Steele’s defense showed up to play and was both dominant and electric, especially early in the game. Tray Mathews, in particular, was all over the field and was delivering huge hits from his safety position. Mathews ended the day as Auburn’s leading tackler, a position he has held down for the last two years as he racked up six tackles, four of which were solo. He showed that he has become the emotional leader of the best Auburn defense in a decade.
After the slaughter Saturday night, Missouri sits at 123rd in the points against category and 111th in the yards per game, allowing 453 total yards. Breaking that down, the yellow Tigers are allowing 257 passing yards and 194 rushing yards per contest.
A quick look at the play-by-play for the first half doesn’t really show the whole story as Missouri began to move the ball in the second quarter. Of course, Auburn was up 31 points and on cruise control by the time Missouri began creating drives. Some new players put their names in the Auburn history book as 21 different Tigers recorded tackles. Auburn recovered three Missouri fumbles and had one interception.
The Auburn offense on the other hand, stroked the Missouri defense for 263 rushing yards and 219 passing yards. As fans, we are fortunate that we are able to critique even this type of performance. If you follow me on Twitter (@Best5Zach), you already know that I was very critical of this win, specifically with the offense.
Again, I point out that we are fortunate to even have this conversation, and it is one that people in Columbia, MO would love to be having. So, I prefer being overly critical with the caveat that any easy win against an SEC opponent should be cherished.
Auburn’s 263 rushing yards were impressive, overshadowing another efficient performance by Jarrett Stidham, who was 13–17 for 218 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown pass to Nate Craig-Myers. Auburn opened the game with a long pass play to Kyle Davis for 58 yards, and it looked like, finally, the Chip Lindsey offense was going to emerge. Yet, Stidham disappeared from the game plan when Auburn entered the red zone and Johnson took over.
While the reason given for holding Pettway back was due to being less than 100 percent, it was clear that Kerryon Johnson wasn’t 100 percent either. Johnson simply didn’t have the burst when he cleared the line of scrimmage, and the offensive line wasn’t creating any push, which was lost in the score.
Though Johnson had five touchdowns, a deeper look at his stats show just how inefficient he was with a per-carry average of 2.7 yards. Johnson’s long run of the day came on a seven-yard touchdown run. On the flip side, Kam Martin led Auburn’s running backs with 74 yards while averaging an astounding 8.2 yards per tote. He is currently leading Auburn’s running backs in every detail except one: touchdowns.
I say all of that to say this: Johnson was clearly not 100%. Why subject a very important piece of Auburn’s offense to abuse, especially in the red zone? Why not use the game to showcase Kam Martin, who continues to make the most of his carries? This continues a conversation that Auburn fans have had all season as Gus Malzahn continues to mismanage injured players. The reliance on Johnson, especially in the red zone, screams “favoritism.” It’s almost like Gus feels obligated, for whatever reason, to give Johnson touchdowns, even when other players are performing at a higher level.
That leads into the next point: Up next is a Mississippi State team that is 16th in the nation in points against while ranking 61st in rushing defense and 15th in passing defense. Overall, the Bulldogs are ranked 6th in defensive efficiency. In the 31–3 loss to Georgia, freshman Jake Fromm’s two touchdown tosses were both for 40-plus yards. Georgia was unable to complete any passes in the red zone against MSU. And red-zone passing has plagued Auburn in past years.
Jarrett Stidham did an excellent job moving Auburn into the red zone, but each time there the pass plays disappeared from the play sheet. Any follower of college football knows that the difference between a good and a great pass-oriented quarterback is how he plays when the field condenses. Auburn has struggled to throw the ball in the red zone since coach Malzahn came to the Plains.
While one line of thought was to take what Missouri gave them, pound the rock, and move the clock, another line of thought may be: work on what you will need to beat better SEC teams. That though was lost on Malzahn and Lindsey Saturday night. This wasn’t a lesser opponent that Auburn had to buy to play. This was an SEC foe, and Auburn will eventually need to lean on Stidham to win games, especially in the red zone. But, that goes to preparation, an area which some believe is a deficiency for coach Malzahn.