Leading the SEC at 306.2 rushing yards per game with 28 rushing touchdowns, Auburn's offense has lived up to Malzahn's expectations of being physical and running the football.
That has come at the expense of the development of the passing game. While Nick Marshall has done a good job running the offense, the junior college transfer has thrown for just 1,266 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games. Completing 59.2 percent of his passes, Marshall is averaging just 19 attempts per game.
Last week in Fayeteville the Tigers threw the ball just nine times in a win over Arkansas, with eight of those coming from Marshall for seven completions. Included in those throws was an 88-yard touchdown toss to Sammie Coates, part of his third 100-yard receiving game of the season.
While the offense has not thrown the ball as much as expected with Marshall working around a pair of injuries and with the running attack producing major results, Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee said it's still very much a focus moving forward. "We throw the ball like crazy in practice," Lashlee said. "I make it very clear--we have no problem throwing it. We've got belief in both of our guys to throw it. And to catch it.
"We've had different receivers from Quan Bray to Ricardo Louis to Trovon Reed to Marcus Davis step up in games," Lashlee said. "I've got no problem throwing it to people other than Sammie. He just happens to be a guy who is leading the country in yards per catch. When he gets singled up, he's pretty good.
"We work on it every week," he added. "We've got plenty of what we would call bullets or plays where we can throw the football and make plays other than just bubble screens. We've got plenty of things we can do each week.
"Each game is different--whatever it's that they play you different, which they did not, or just the way they unfold. Just trust me, we know it's going to happen--a game where we're going to have a game where we have to win the game throwing the football like we did against Mississippi State. When it happens, I feel confident that our guys are going to be able to do it."
The confidence is high with at least one part of the passing game and that is Coates. Leading the team with 24 catches for 638 yards and five touchdowns, Coates is on pace to break the school record for yards per catch average in a single season held by Freddy Weygand.
A big-play threat who gets a few opportunities each game to stretch the field, Coates had a big play with the long catch against Arkansas and another important one came earlier in the game.
On the first possession of the second half the Tigers faced a second and six at the Arkansas 31-yard line hoping to break open a 14-3 game. With Johnson in at quarterback Auburn ran a slant across the middle. Coming off the bench cold, Johnson's throw was behind Coates, but the receiver snagged the ball for a big 15-yard gain. Tre Mason finished the drive with one of his four touchdowns on the way to the road win.
"I just knew I was going to have a chance to make a play," Coates said. "I just had to do it. That os something we have been working on is making a play when the ball isn't perfect. You just have to judge the ball and catch it; keep your eyes on it. Jeremy kind of threw the ball late, but I had to adjust to it and make the play."
Attempting the fewest passes of any SEC team this season, Auburn is 11th in yards per game through the air and eighth in touchdowns with 13. Saying he knows the offense is going to have to open up more down the stretch in order to win, Coates predicted the Tigers will be more likely to pass the ball in the coming games.
"We came in and know we're going to do a good job of running the ball," Coates said of the Arkansas win. "The offensive line did a great job of blocking and Tre Mason ran the ball hard. We just came into the game knowing we were going to try to run the ball down their throats and we did just that. That's all we were working on is making good blocks. The passes will come when they come. Nobody is complaining. We just keep doing what we do.
"We just have to keep going up," he added. "Every game, we just have to take it one game at a time. We're just coming together and playing as a team, playing as one and playing for each other. We're playing for the guy next to us. We're going to play together every game."