Jason Caldwell's Monday Morning Quarterback Column: Positives For Auburn Football At Halfway Point

Auburn had its most impressive performance of the year in a win over Mississippi State on Saturday in Starkville and now move into the second half of the 2016 football season.

Concerned About Second Half?

In the wake of Auburn’s dominating win over Mississippi State on the road Saturday in Starkville I checked out what the fans were talking about and was surprised to see many concerned and downright mad about the Tigers’ play in the second half.

Was I shocked that people were upset? No, because watching the game from the sidelines I was expecting to see this Auburn team come out crisp and put the finishing touches on Mississippi State very early.

Then I remembered something very important to that outcome, Kerryon Johnson’s injury in the first half. With Kamryn Pettway already at 27 carries at halftime he was a tired back in the second half and it showed with his production coming way down in the final 30 minutes. The fact that Mississippi State knew what was coming on just about every play didn’t help Auburn’s production either, but that’s just Gus Malzahn’s style.

Much like Tommy Tuberville used to be, Malzahn isn’t interested in the slightest about running up the score on his opponent. Does it hurt him at times? Absolutely it does because Saturday would have been a great opportunity to continue to work on the passing game in the second half and also get Stanton Truitt and Kameron Martin more involved in the offense.

Instead, Malzahn chose to grind it out and take the win following easily the most impressive first half of football for an Auburn team since leading LSU 31-7 at the half in 2014.

The goal of a team is to win games and keep improving, and based on what I saw on Saturday this Auburn team is night and day compared to the one that opened the season against Clemson. In every phase this group of Tigers has gotten better and now with an off week to heal and work on the fundamentals, Malzahn’s group has a chance to make some serious noise in the second half of the season.


Red Zone Improving

It’s easy to see from the numbers that Auburn’s red zone offense is improving, but I saw a couple of things early that show this coaching staff is becoming more versatile in their attack as well. The first came on the Ryan Davis touchdown grab to open the scoring for the Tigers. Lined up inside with Darius Slayton outside, the Tigers used a rub route to get Davis open in the flat. It’s easy to get called for offensive pass interference on that play, but Slayton did a great job of getting in the way and then calling for the football. That’s coaching and doing it well.

The second came the following drive when Auburn got Chandler Cox involved in the passing game for the first time. With the defense obviously focusing on the running game, the Tigers slid Cox out across the formation and Sean White hit him in stride. Cox just missed scoring, but he got the ball down to the one where Pettway finished the drive.

Those two plays are perfect examples of an offensive staff that is growing and learning more about what makes this particular team click. This team has to do things differently than it did in 2010 and 2013 and it looks like Rhett Lashlee and this offensive staff is starting to build on those things week by week.

Speaking of Cox, it’s time to give the sophomore credit for what he’s doing as a blocker for the Tigers. Struggling some early in the season after spending much of his time in the spring and even some in the preseason as a running back, Cox has picked up his physicality in a major way the last three weeks. Saturday was easily the best he hgas played in that role since he’s been at Auburn and it showed up in both the running game and also pass protection.

Early in the second quarter Cox did a great job of blocking a rushing defensive end to allow White time to hit Kyle Davis across the middle for a big gain. Later in the quarter he picked up a blitzer from the edge to give White time to hit Martin down the sidelines for a big gainer in front of Auburn’s bench.

Those are just two examples of plays that go unnoticed, but are big reasons for improved offensive play by the Tigers on Saturday.


Basketball Time

With an off week from football this is a great time to get back to Auburn Arena to see Bruce Pearl’s Tigers on the court and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this team. That starts with the guys up front. While a lot will be made of newcomer Mustapha Heron and redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy, and rightfully so, this team will only go as far as Houston transfer Ronnie Johnson and true freshman Jared Harper take them from the point guard position.

A powerful player at the point with good quickness, Johnson is a classic facilitator who should be a calming influence on the floor. Cat-quick and a blur with the ball, Harper sees the entire floor and is always looking up when he has the ball. That’s really important for a point guard and while he will make his share of mistakes at times as a true freshman, Harper’s ability to push the ball up the court should be huge for Auburn this season and in the years to come.

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