AUBURN, Ala. — The focus on the Plains has shifted from Auburn’s 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson toward the Tigers’ Week 2 matchup against Sun Belt foe Arkansas State.
Gus Malzahn’s former employer is coming off a lopsided loss in its own building and will be looking to put together an upset bid like Jacksonville State did this time last season in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In a strange twist to the Malzahn era, Auburn wants major improvement on the offensive side of the ball and continued defensive success. A matchup against Arkansas State at 6:30 p.m. CT this Saturday provides a good chance at both for the Tigers.
Here are five key things to look for as these two teams matchup for the second time in four seasons.
FERG’S FILM ROOM: Breaking down AU’s snap counts and more vs. Clemson
A simple kind of plan
Malzahn’s experiment to bring life to a three-headed quarterback monster didn’t see daylight after last Saturday night. On Tuesday, he announced Sean White would be the starter for Arkansas State, and John Franklin III would prepare as the No. 2 quarterback.
That’s it. There wasn’t any talk of special packages for Jeremy Johnson or even using the speedy Franklin just to provide a different look. Malzahn is going with a simple starter and backup plan for Week 2 after admitting his plan to throw Clemson off-balance didn’t work like he hoped.
Arkansas State is a good matchup for Auburn to get things done through the air. Toledo threw for 371 yards on just 31 attempts — with a brand-new starter at quarterback in Logan Woodside — in its 31-10 win over Arkansas State. White should get the green light to attack this Red Wolves secondary.
The simpler plan at quarterback should help with the overall consistency Auburn’s offense lacked in the upset bid against Clemson. Look for White to grow more comfortable as the top quarterback as the Tigers bring along Franklin in the offensive scheme.
Operation ground and pound
After a game in which Auburn only had one rushing yard at halftime, the Arkansas State matchup provides a chance for the offense to return to its roots — controlling the game with an explosive ground attack.
Auburn tried to keep Clemson off-balance with Wing-T sets and different Wildcat quarterbacks. But when the Tigers lined up and attacked Clemson with a more traditional running game, Kerryon Johnson showed he could make things happen in space.
A decent part of this possible turnaround for the Auburn offense will fall on the shoulders of the front five. Auburn’s offensive line struggled with Clemson’s defensive front in both pass protection and run blocking. Getting back to basics on the ground should do wonders for the offensive line’s confidence.
With more cohesion in the offensive game plan, opportunities should open up for Auburn to get chunk rushing plays against the Arkansas State defense. When that happens, the Tigers can play at the pace they lacked last season and in Week 1 against Clemson.
Following up Week 1’s defensive showcase
Auburn played a nearly perfect game of defense against Clemson, which entered the 2016 season with perhaps the most-loaded offensive roster in college football. Holding the visiting Tigers to 19 points and 3.4 yards per carry were goals even the most optimistic of Auburn fans probably thought Kevin Steele’s defense couldn’t accomplish.
Now Week 2 is here, and Auburn is going up against a mid-major opponent who is coming off a lopsided loss to one of its own kind. Arkansas State, usually boasting a powerful offense, went 3 for 16 on third downs and was forced to punt on six straight drives against Toledo. Simply put, the Red Wolves won’t be as big of offensive threats as Clemson.
But, as linebacker Tre’ Williams told reporters Monday night, complacency can’t be an issue for Auburn’s defense after such a fantastic performance. There are always things to improve, and the space between Week 1 and Week 2 is where the most regular-season growth comes for a team.
Auburn’s defense has a strong foundation for the 2016 season, and it needs to prove that Week 1 wasn’t a case of the unit getting charged up for one nationally televised game against an elite opponent. The truly great defenses can keep up their performance levels from week to week. Now it’s time to see if Auburn can do that before hitting a tough SEC stretch.
Hey, you look familiar…
Arkansas State has plenty of connections to the Auburn program that go beyond Malzahn, an Arkansas high school coaching legend who was the head man for the Red Wolves in 2012. Malzahn returned to the Plains for Auburn’s head coaching job, and his second game with the Tigers came against Arkansas State.
On the field, Arkansas State has a pair of Auburn natives in wide receiver Cameron Echols-Luper and defensive back Blaise Taylor. Both Echols-Luper and Taylor are sons of former Auburn assistant coaches and played football at Auburn High during the Gene Chizik era. One of those assistants, the always-energetic Trooper Taylor, is on staff at Arkansas State.
Taylor will be on the sidelines as Arkansas State’s assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach with his trademark backwards hat and towel. Blaise Taylor is a starting cornerback for him, and he is a dynamic return man for the Red Wolves.
Echols-Luper left his father Curtis’ current employer, TCU, and transferred to Arkansas State for a shot at quarterback. The former All-Big 12 returner is a versatile offensive weapon at receiver for the Red Wolves and boasts excellent speed. They should be highly motivated, along with Trooper Taylor, to have a huge game in front of their former hometown crowd.
Going deeper into the roster
Malzahn said Tuesday that powerful backup running back Kamryn Pettway, who only played a couple of snaps against Clemson, should have a bigger role against Arkansas State. He’ll be one of several who could make an impact Saturday night after sticking to the sidelines in the Clemson game.
Freshman running backs Kam Martin and Malik Miller might get their first touches if Auburn can get rolling on offense this weekend. Middle linebacker T.J. Neal, who voiced his frustrations on Twitter with a lack of playing time against Clemson, might make his defensive debut with transfer defensive back Marshall Taylor.
Auburn stuck to a smaller rotation on defense against Clemson, but that should change against Arkansas State. Safety Stephen Roberts is back in the fold after his one-game suspension. True freshman defensive tackle Derrick Brown and sophomore defensive end Byron Cowart will look to build off of their Week 1 performances.
The Tigers won’t take the Red Wolves lightly as they search for their first win of 2016. But if Auburn can play to their talent levels against Arkansas State, plenty of reserves will get their opportunities to help build the experienced depth that will be needed in upcoming SEC matchups against Texas A&M and LSU.
Justin Ferguson is the Auburn beat writer for the SEC Country. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.