Malzahn Pleased With "Anniversary" Practice

One year after returning to Auburn, Gus Malzahn said he is "tickled to death" to be head coach of the Tigers as his team continues preparations for Saturday's SEC Championship Game.

Auburn, Ala.--On the anniversary of being hired as head coach of the Auburn Tigers, Gus Malzahn said he liked the focus he is seeing from his team as it prepares for Saturday's SEC Football Championship Game vs. Missouri.

"We had a solid practice tonight," Malzahn said. "As a matter of fact we have had a good week of practice. Our guys have been extremely focused.

"Like I told them at the first of the week, we are playing one of the top teams in the country. We are going to have to improve from last week's game to have a chance to win."

Malzahn noted he made that point to the players early in the week that his team needed to forget about its back-to-back exciting victories in the rivalry games to close the regular season. "The emotional thing is what I was concerned about more than anything," the coach said. "I knew our guys would flip the switch. We are playing for a chance to win the SEC Championship."

Malzahn added that his team took a "business-like approach during a two-hour workout at the indoor facility in shorts, helmets and shoulder pads on a warm and wet evening. "There haven't been any kind of distractions and they went about their business like they have all year," he said.

Talking about the anniversary of his return to AU where he served as offensive coordinator for three years before leaving for one season to take over as head coach at Arkansas State, Malzahn said, "I am very blessed to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers. I really appreciate the guys who gave me this opportunity who believed in me.

"It has been a lot of fun--a blessing to coach this team. We are playing for the SEC Championship so it has been a good year.

"Auburn is a great place," the coach added. "Auburn is a place that expects to win championships. When I got hired I knew it was just a matter of time. Our players put us in this position. Like I said before we have our hands full with this team, one of the top teams in the country for the SEC Championship."

Asked about rumors that he could be interested in being the next head coach of the Texas Longhorns, something that his in-state rival, Nick Saban, has been discussed as a possibility of being a candidate for, Malzahn said, "The response is I am tickled to death to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers."

Malzahn emphasized that his team is taking Saturday's game vs. seriously. Auburn and Missouri will square at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. "We are playing one of the better teams in America," he said. "They have earned the right to get here and they are tough."

One of the reasons for Missouri's success this season is an SEC-leading plus 15 in turnover margin. Mizzou has intercepted an SEC-high 18 passes and recovered nine fumbles. Mizzou's offense has lost six fumbles and six interceptions.

Auburn is tied for sixth in the league with Tennessee at plus one in turnover margin. AU has just five takeaways via fumble recovery, which is tied for last in the league with Texas A&M. Auburn and Ole Miss are tied for seventh in the league in interceptions with a dozen apiece.

"They are one of the best teams in the country at protecting the football and getting turnovers," Malzahn said. "We had that one turnover last game and we have to correct that. We can't have any turnovers.

"They are very active, they go for the football," Malzahn added. "They are one of the better defensive fronts in all of college football in getting after the quarterback. That will be a big challenge."

Despite the turnover disadvantage and giving up more yards per game (Auburn 414.2, Missouri 385.4) there is very little difference in points allowed between the two teams. Missouri is giving up 19.4 per contest while Auburn is at 22.5.

Commenting on Auburn's defense, coordinator Ellis Johnson said, "The bottom line is that we have gotten some takeaways at critical times. We have made some really key fourth down stops. We have been good in the red zone and we have been really good on third down for the most part. That's why we have kept people off the board to some degree.

"The other contributing factor is that we run the ball well and have a good kicking game," the veteran coach said. "Those are things that make it very difficult for an opposing offense to get points when you are constantly losing 10-12 yards when you swap punts and can't get the ball back on time."

However, Johnson noted that his defense needs to step up its level of play for the final two games of the season. "We have really given up way too much yardage to think that we have played extremely well this year, but we have played extremely well in some key situations," he said.

Auburn junior Nick Marshall has received praise from Malzahn this week and the quarterback's position coach, Rhett Lashlee, noted he has been pleased with Marshall's development since arriving on campus this summer after graduating at Garden City Community College in Kansas.

Nick Marshall races into the end zone for the first touchdown in Auburn's 34-28 victory over Alabama.

Malzahn, Lashlee and the players have pointed out that Marshall is becoming comfortable in a role as a team leader.

"It's like any relationship, the longer you're around they more trust you have and the better feel for people, and the better you know them," Lashlee said. "It all goes back to that he has been coachable. From day one whether you're teaching him something early on or whether you're getting onto him and ripping him, or however it is you're doing it, he responds well all the time.

"He's always respectful: ‘yes sir, no sir.' Not only does he respond right, but then his actions follow. Very rarely do you have to tell him something twice. I give him all that credit--from being coachable and then having the will and the desire to try to get better.

"You look at the last two ball games when we needed him to make throws, he made throws," Lashlee pointed out. "He made really good throws, very efficient. He knows he is going to have to keep doing that. You can tell he is working on it and he's getting a lot better."

In other news and notes:

*If Lashlee wins the Broyles Award, which is presented annually to the top assistant coach in college football, he would be following in the footsteps of his boss. Malzahn won the award in 2010. After being named one of five semi-finalists for the honor this week, the offensive coordinator/quarterback coach said he will be in Little Rock for the ceremony on Dec. 10th.

Rhett Lashlee formerly worked at Auburn as a graduate assistant coach prior to returning this season from Arkansas State with Malzahn.

"It's a great honor," Lashlee said. "It's humbling. I feel like we have got eight other assistants on this staff who deserve it just as much. I look at things like this the same as for our players getting individual recognition-- it's just a reflection of this team and how it's been this year.

"We have won as a team every week whether at one part in the game the offense is playing really well and the defense isn't so we're picking them up or we start struggling and they start making stops like they did the last three drives the other night or the special teams picks us up. We have won as a team all year, and it just so happens every now and then I guess someone represents the team."

*Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, who is a finalist with Malzahn for the Maxwell Coach of the Year of the Award along with David Cutcliffe of Duke, is one victory away from becoming the winningest coach in Mizzou football history. Pinkel's record is 101-62 at Missouri, matching the victory total of Don Faurot, who coached in Columbia from 1935-42 and again from 1946-56. Missouri's home field is named after Faurot.

*Linebacker Javiie Mitchell, who suffered a slight concussion in the victory vs. Alabama, has been cleared to play vs. Missouri, Malzahn said on Wednesday night. Mitchell, a redshirt freshman, plays in the goal line defensive package and on special teams.

*Auburn and Missouri have played five common opponents–Arkansas State from the Sun Belt Conference and SEC teams Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia. Missouri has outscored those opponents 165-93 while Auburn has outscored those teams 211-133.

*This year's 11-1 Missouri team is the third in school history to win at least 10 games. The school record is 12 by the 2007 squad that finished 12-2.

*Saturday's SEC Championship Game will start shortly after 3 p.m. CST at the Georgia Dome. TV coverage is on CBS with Verne Lundquist doing the play-by-play, Gary Danielson will be the color analyst and Tracy Wolfson will be the sideline reporter.

*In addition to coverage from play-by-play man Rod Bramblett, analyst Stan White, sideline reporter Quentin Riggins and studio host Paul Ellen on the Auburn Radio Network, the game will be carried nationally on the WestwoodOne network. It is also available on Sirius Channel 92 and XM Channel 199.

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