Gus Malzahn took over the ASU program in a "prodigal son returns" type of fanfare and declaring that "if you think I'm one and done, you don't know me very well" he jumped back to the Plains after only one season. Now he leads the Auburn Tigers as the Arkansas State Red Wolves come to town.
In 2012 the Tigers took a one year hiatus from the Hurry Up No Huddle but with Malzahn back in town the HUNH is back. There are lots of different types of up-tempo spread offenses and what Gus wants to do is run a physical run game out of his.
The thing that makes this offense work is a quarterback who can make it all happen. The Tigers turned to JC transfer Nick Marshall to lead their attack. A former Georgia Bulldog cornerback, Marshall switched to QB in junior college and passed for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns, but also 20 interceptions. He added 1,095 rushing yards and another 19 touchdowns. Marshall is a very athletic, strong armed quarterback that won the starting job during fall camp. Marshall struggled last week vs. Washington State when he was 10-19 for 99 yards passing and 9 rushes for 27 yards. He had a few overthrows with that strong arm and a few passes to hot to handle early as the Tigers had just 20 yards passing in the first half.
Marshall's struggle with his passing is also compounded by the fact the Auburn is still trying to find their go to receiver. Sammie Coates and lightning quick Quan Bray finished the WSU game with 3 catches each. Ricardo Louis was targeted more than the others but overthrows by his QB and his own drops had Malzahn steaming at times on the sidelines.
The Tigers have a good stable of backs that Marshall will use in zone read runs, jet sweeps, and reverses in that up-tempo offense that will be so familiar to A-State fans. In fact Auburn's three backs look very similar to Arkansas State's trio. Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, give the Tiger rushing attack multiple options. Mason is the primary back and has good speed and vision. The 1000 yard rusher in 2012 is also a dangerous kickoff return specialist that had a 100 yard kick return for a touchdown vs Washington State to add to his 73 yards on 15 carries. Grant, a transfer from Alabama, is a blazer. He won back to back 6A state 100 meter championships in high school and Auburn utilized him against WSU similar to how Malzahn used Rocky Hayes at ASU in 2012. Grant finished with 146 yards on 9 carries last week including a 75 yard sprint to the endzone on a zone read. Artis-Payne is a little bit more of a bruiser and finished with 52 yards on 10 carries. If Malzahn wants to pound the ball these three backs and Marshall will be the focus.
The Auburn offensive line returns four starters and has developed some depth, but it is still a fairly young group. The two deep at for the Tigers include 3 sophomores and four redshirt freshmen. The player that leads this group is center Reese Dismukes. The junior, a two time Rimington Trophy watch list member, is the one player Malzahn can't afford to lose on the line.
Malzahn tagged Ellis Johnson to run the counterpart to his up-tempo offense. After one 0-12 season as the head coach at Southern Miss, Johnson brings his 4-2-5 defense to the Plains. For Arkansas State fans this scheme should also look familiar. Basically just replace the name of the "Wolf" position with the name "Star" and you have the same concept.
The Auburn defensive front four definitely look the part Saturday even if it took a half to get there. The Tigers struggled to get much pressure on WSU quarterback Connor Halliday in the first half as he was getting the ball out of his hand quickly to open receivers against the War Eagle zone defense. The big, athletic defensive line went to their three five-star recruits - Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson, and Elijah Daniel. All three true freshmen saw playing time against Washington State but it was Adams that caused havoc in the second half getting pressure with stunts and twists. The Auburn defensive line eventually hurried Halliday, defeating the Cougar offensive line that was starting three former walk-ons. Auburn's returner sack leader, Dee Ford, is still ailing from a knee strain and should miss the Arkansas State game as will starting defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker so expect the young defensive linemen to continue to see time this Saturday.
Against the pass happy WSU offense Johnson dropped his Will linebacker for an extra defensive back. In return seven of the top eight tacklers for the Tigers were in the defensive backfield. Washington State passed the ball 65 times and Auburn picked off three passes (one more than the Tigers managed the entire 2012 season). Halliday should have actually been picked off three more times but there were dropped interceptions by the Tiger DBs. For the record Halliday had 13 interceptions in 2012 and made several poor judgments throwing across his body back into coverage multiple times. A lot of zone coverage was shown in the first half by Auburn and defensive backs were playing off the receivers. WSU blitzed the Tigers for 264 passing yards as Halliday was hitting Cougar receivers on quick slants and crossing patterns moving the ball down field. In the first half, WSU had only 19 yards rushing on 12 attempts. In the second half the Tigers went man coverage and got more pressure on Halliday.
Back up "Star" Robenson Therezie was the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after making 7 tackles and 2 interceptions against Washington State. Therezie started in place of injured starter Justin Garrett, who is still listed as day-to-day for the Arkansas State game.
Auburn went for two on their first score by spreading the field in what could be considered a "wildcat" type look with the holder Ryan White and he took a keeper into the endzone. Malzahn had his group line up again on the second score but came back together to kick the PAT.
This Saturday, Auburn fans will get to see a similar style to what they will see all year long under Malzahn. The difference may be that Arkansas State may have the ability to be more balanced than Auburn. The Red Wolves will definitely be more balanced than the what Washington State was.
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