Upon Further Review: Out of the Woodwork
Auburn’s victory against Liberty wasn’t unexpected. The score was. Even more surprising was just how the box score played out.
Now, let’s just say that you moved the Liberty game to the week following the then-super hyped game against Washington. Washington was a clear favorite to win the Pac-12, and a win against Auburn would set up a yellow brick road that led to the playoffs. A win for Auburn meant that Gus Malzahn had possibly cured what ailed him in Atlanta and a premier nonconference win provided some fuel for the contention that Auburn was indeed ready for the big boys.
Auburn got the win, and the box score for that game not only assured Auburn fans that the Tigers were ready, but the also the players leading the stats were exactly those that Malzahn had assured his fan base would be the leaders coming out of fall camp.
Jarrett Stidham looked to pick up right back where he ended the end of the 2017 regular season. No. 8 was 26 for 36 for 273 yards and a touchdown. The score was to tight end Sal Cannella, who had been hyped as the missing piece for the offense. After years of preaching about how the tight end would be more involved, Cannella broke through with a catch in the end zone.
Kam Martin was touted as the lead back for an offense looking for yet another 1,000-yard rusher. While he was kept out of the end zone, he led all Auburn rushers with 22 carries for 80 yards, yeoman’s work for the diminutive back. Most importantly, Auburn’s defense held one of the most prolific 2017 offenses in the country to 160 yards and made Jake Browning and Miles Gaskin look human.
It was exactly how Auburn fans had drawn it up in their dreams.
But the dream ended in Atlanta.
Months went by … Auburn lost multiple games.
Liberty isn’t Washington, but Washington isn’t what it was expected to be, either. Since then, Washington has lost two more games and faces the Apple Cup against a Washington State team that’s in the hunt for a playoff spot. Along the way Browning was benched. Gaskin needs 100 yards just to break 1,000, a far cry from the 1,300 yards he’s accumulated every year of his career. His seven scores are a third of last years’ rushing total, and he has not been a factor in the passing game.
Nothing looked the same for the Tigers, either, at least until Saturday.
Auburns’ defense has been unfairly criticized the last few weeks
for being unable to get off the field. There has been gnashing of teeth about all phases of the defense, including the man, Kevin Steele, who turned around a once proud defense that had languished for years.
Yes, there have been frustrations along the way. Yes, it would have been nice for the D not to look lost at times or even not be interested in making plays as they seemed to be against Georgia at times last week. But that perception is skewed because fans have come to expect the offense to be bad and assume the defense would win games.
Auburn’s defense showed up against Liberty and looked vintage and fresh against a pretty good offense. Turnovers? No problem. Blocked kicks? Sure. Defensive and special teams scores? Check.
The defense held the Flames to 134 total yards on the way to shutting them out. What else can you say?
What else looked eerily similar? The offensive box score.
Kam Martin led the way for the first time since the Washington game. He had 116 yards and a score on 16 carries. That broke a streak of five games where he had four or less carries in the game. His only extended duty came against Southern Miss with 24 carries. The back tabbed as a starter and the lead back in the Gus Malzahn offense will likely end his year with 388 yards and just one score, as no one expects him to actually see the field against Bama.
Sal Cannella proved that he was actually still on the team with his scoring catch. Cannella currently has 11 catches for 95 yards and two scores. Like Martin, that will likely be it for No. 80.
Jarrett Stidham’s 186 quarterback rating against the Flames was his highest mark of the year.
Veteran players came out of the woodwork Saturday to turn in some great performances not seen since week one. But there are other players whose emergence from the woodwork extends far beyond that.
Entering the year, Auburn’s receiver rotation was absolutely set in stone. Ryan Davis would move the chains. Darius Slayton would take the top off of the defense. Eli Stove and Will Hastings would return to round out the group. Instead, freshmen have led the way. Sure, Ryan Davis leads in catches and yardage, but he has been a nonfactor. An argument can be made that a catch by Davis is a win for any defense, as it is likely a loss in yards or a minimal gain at best. His yards per catch is a paltry 8 yards, and he has zero scores.
Freshmen Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz have been outstanding for the Tigers. The two have combined for 40 catches for 776 yards and seven scores. Williams leads all pass catchers with five TD’s. Speedster Schwartz has 180 rushing yards and three more scores. The two rank first and second in yards per catch.
It’s been a strange year.