Upon Further Review: Offense, Who Needs It?
After four games that included a top nonconference foe, a cupcake win, and a 1–1 record in the SEC, Auburn’s quarterback entered week five with a 64-for-98 line good for a 65% completion percentage, three touchdowns and an interception. That’s far from what is expected from an Auburn QB under Gus Malzahn.
Wait. Those aren’t Jarrett Stidham’s numbers. That’s Sean White’s line from 2016.
Stidham’s numbers: 63-for-123, a 52% completion percentage for 718 yards, three TD’s and two picks.
That’s right, folks. Even after a game against the team that won the national championship and saw Gus Malzahn use six different QB’s, Sean White’s number out-performs Auburn’s potential first-round quarterback this season.
To be fair to Stidham, his numbers last season are eerily similar in terms of production with 846 yards, three scores and two interceptions. And Stidham was throwing the ball with a 70% completion percentage. Now, it’s unfair to point the finger solely at Stidham.
There are several key similarities and differences between the 2016 squad and this year’s unit.
First, the offensive line in 2016 started the season with Xavier Dampeer, which turned out to be a short-lived experiment. Starting against a ground-and-pound, total beatdown of Arkansas when Austin Golson moved back to center, Auburn went on a fantastic run that ended against UGA and Bama. Auburn’s keys to success that year, before White was injured, were an offense predicated on efficient play-action passing and a grinding run game with Kam Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
Going into this year’s Arkansas week, Gus shuffled the offensive line, changing centers from Kaleb Kim to Nick Brahms, who missed much of the year due to injury. It did not produce the same results as the last time Arkansas came to town. The defense and special teams won the game for Auburn, and there is no debating that.
In some ways, it is shocking how poor the offense looked against Arkansas, one of the worst defensive teams in the country. A week after Malzahn went for a 4th-and-one in the first quarter that was stuffed, a game where three points wins the game, Auburn decided to kick it against Arkansas from the one-yard line, three plays after the Auburn defense spotted the ball at the one. Later on, he went for it on the eight, and the team was stuffed yet again. Neither of those plays against Arkansas impacted the game like the one against LSU, but they emphasize the struggles the Auburn offensive line is experiencing.
The 225 offensive yards that Auburn put up against Arkansas were the fewest yards in a win since Gus Malzahn came to Auburn. The 225 yards is the seventh-worst output in the Gus Malzahn-era offense. That’s not as nearly as shocking as this: three of the seven worst performances have come with Jarrett Stidham as Auburn’s quarterback. Auburn’s offense had 116 total yards against Clemson, 259 against UGA in the SEC Championship, and now 225 against Arkansas.
But it isn’t always fair to compare statistics between years.
Last year’s squad isn’t this year’s squad, for certain. Auburn’s offensive line may have been slightly shuffled last year, but the veteran presence was there, just not quite in the right positions to begin the season. This season, there are not as many combined starts along the offensive line as the past unit nor have the right pieces been put in place.
Malzahn wasn’t done any favors by the loss of lost of Jalen Harris and Nate Craig-Myers to transfer. Craig-Myers was called Auburn’s best blocking receiver, and Harris was an integral piece of the puzzle. As with so many years under Malzahn, it typically isn’t big changes that bring success, but the small things. Could those losses been the difference between the 34–3 win versus the expectation that Auburn was going to put up 50 points?
Media members close to the program, such as beat reporter Brandon Marcello, said on a local radio station that Auburn simply isn’t recruiting the offensive line as well as had been done in the past, and fans are just now beginning to see the effects.
The lack of talent should explain why the Tigers were able to rush for just a 2.5 yard average against a team as poor against the run as Arkansas. Kam Martin and JaTarvious Whitlow only had a combined 21 carries, and Auburn was unable to move the chains enough to give them enough carries to break out. Simply put, Auburn’s offensive line was awful, and the two running backs just couldn’t do anything.
Of course, there has to be a discussion about the difference in Auburn’s skill positions last season and this season.
That conversation starts and ends with Kerryon Johnson. KJ became the first Detroit Lions player in 70-something games to rush for over 100 yards in a contest. While Kam Pettway was a nonfactor on last year’s team, he was still a more physical runner than anything that Auburn has on the roster.
Whitlow is going to be a good back for Auburn, and Martin has ability to be a major factor elsewhere. In addition, freshman Shaun Shivers has shown flashes. But none of this matters without the O-line’s ability to make it to the second level. Auburn has rushed for 797 yards through four games—a far cry from the numbers fans expect.
A lot of fans (and beat reporters, for that matter) are also beginning to wonder if Malzahn will quit being so stubborn with the run and start to lean on his first-round talent at quarterback. It’s nice to believe that success begins and ends with a powerful down-hill, play-action offense, but the man that says that obviously forgets the job Malzahn did with Chris Todd and the Auburn offense in 2009. Through four games, Todd threw for 1,012 yards, 11 TD,s, and just one interception. There isn’t a soul on the planet that believes Todd is a better QB than Jarrett Stidham.
Why doesn’t Malzahn lean on Stidham and the passing game when the running game has obvious problems?
Some of it is certainly the offensive line issues. Stidham is frequently being flushed out of the pocket, which is one of the reasons he scored a rushing touchdown against Arkansas. Some of it could be the lack of offensive weapons on the perimeter. As I wrote last week, Auburn’s best receivers, by far, have been true freshmen Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz. Ryan Davis may have more catches, but he also has some bad drops and hasn’t done nearly as much as Schwartz, who sits atop the stats.
Some of it has been play calling. After hitting some great timing routes against Washington, Auburn hasn’t attempted any more “short game” passes, despite offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s promise to work on it. That’s likely because defenses are hurrying Stidham without blitzing. Per Cole Cubelic, LSU blitzed just once last week but managed to get Stidham time and time again.
Could it be that Malzahn doesn’t lean on Stidham because Stidham just isn’t as good as advertised? Even Cam Newton didn’t have the hype that Jarrett Stidham had when he came to Auburn. Stidham set records for passing yards last season, so it really isn’t up for debate that Stidham is a good QB. Is he great? Maybe not. Could it also be that the play calling just isn’t what a player like Stidham needs to succeed? Maybe that’s why the offense is stuck in the mud.
But, then again, the way Auburn’s defense and special teams are currently playing, offense? What offense? Who needs it?
The job done by Kevin Steele and the Auburn defense has put Auburn in a position that even a mired-in-the-mud offense won’t keep Auburn from winning games. The question is, will Auburn be able to score enough in games that matter?