Yes, Virginia, there were some positives for Gus Malzahn and his Auburn football team in Saturday’s 24-10 wheeze past Mercer. To wit:
- Especially in the second half, Jarrett Stidham and the Tigers passing game looked far sharper than at any point this young season, with Stidham finishing 32-for-37 passing for 364 yards — an excellent stat line no matter the opponent.
- Despite the Auburn defense never quite recapturing the intensity of its first two performances — how could it? — the Bears still averaged only 3.7 yards a play and scored only a single touchdown after forcing five Auburn turnovers.
- Speaking of those turnovers: Auburn’s not likely to lose four fumbles in a game again this season, or for many seasons. The last time in happened was 2001. That’s a fluke.
- Relatedly, Auburn won a game in which it lost the turnover battle 5-0. It could have been otherwise.
But Virginia, honesty also compels us to tell you that for many on the Plains, those positives will not outweigh the negatives. Part of that is watching Auburn average 3.4 yards a carry against an FCS opponent at home. Part of it is that many of Stidham’s biggest throws came with time that simply will not be available against serious competition. Part of it is that a 7-point fourth-quarter lead vs. Mercer is a 7-point fourth-quarter lead vs. Mercer is a 7-point fourth-quarter lead vs. Mercer.
But there’s also the feeling that Auburn’s offensive coaching staff remains a point of worry rather than assurance, more desperate than confident. Let’s start with this:
Even Kamryn Pettway was surprised he was the only Auburn running back to get carries for a second straight week. https://t.co/P1RMnBugLf
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) September 17, 2017
Is any other tailback in the country sharing no carries at all? Even Derrius Guice shared a few carries for LSU vs. Mississippi State. Royce Freeman has shared carries for Oregon. Saquon Barkley hasn’t shared very many carries for Penn State … but he’s also only carried four times more all season than Pettway did against Mercer.
Say it again: against Mercer. Say this, too: Pettway is battling plantar fasciitis and missed multiple games last season because of injury. And, his backup ran for 136 yards on 14 carries only two weeks ago.
Malzahn said afterward “the offensive coaches wanted Pettway in the game,” which makes sense given its competitiveness. But those same coaches will want Pettway in the game against Mississippi State, against LSU, and against Georgia and Alabama. Unfortunately, running him 34 times Saturday because they feel they can’t afford to give Kam Martin or Malik Miller a single touch without risking defeat against Mercer means it’s more likely they won’t have him for those games.
Pettway’s usage might be the most glaring example of Malzahn and Co. feeling the pressure, but it’s not the only one.
Gus Malzahn's headset mic remains above his head during this drive and he's still 30-plus yards away from line, watching game on videoboard.
— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) September 16, 2017
A week ago, Malzahn was visibly involved with his team’s offensive coaching at Clemson. Is there any reason for the change other than to signal to fans and media members — who have speculated he has a heavier hand than promised in the offense — that it really does belong to Chip Lindsey? If that’s the case, is it the decision of a coach who’s confident in his approach and unconcerned with the criticism surrounding him?
Then there’s Lindsey’s much-discussed move to the press box after spending Auburn’s first two games on the sideline. It’s true that Lindsey may be more comfortable as a play-caller from the box, maybe accurate that his move may give Auburn’s offense a small-but-meaningful edge over its performances vs. Georgia Southern and Clemson. But in the wake of the Clemson defeat, it also felt like change for change’s sake, the decision of a staff that knew something had gone wrong but was unsure of more practical ways to repair it. (For example, Florida made the same change this week, and the results against Tennessee were … mixed.)
Put everything together, and you get the picture of a coaching staff that’s still searching for answers. Depending on your view of Pettway’s usage, we didn’t see anything as irrational against Mercer as Malzahn’s quarterback carousel to open 2016 — the last time it felt like Auburn’s coaches had let their desperation get the better of them.
If Stidham and the offensive line can settle into Lindsey’s offense – which is not impossible with Saturday’s showing in the books, and reeling Missouri on deck — Auburn can still make this season something more positive than its last, regardless of whatever struggles it’s faced early this season.
But that will require a healthy Pettway, a mistake-limiting offense, and most of all a composed and focused coaching staff. There were positives for Auburn against Mercer, but not enough to believe just yet those issues won’t remain issues going forward.