Auburn football mailbag: Biggest offensive woes, Gus Malzahn’s future and no reason to panic
AUBURN, Ala. — With Auburn football, things have a tendency to change in a hurry.
Case in point — last week’s SEC Country Auburn football mailbag was full of questions about how the Tigers’ offense would change against defending national champion Clemson. The tone throughout was cautious optimism.
Putting up only 15 yards of offense in the second half of a one-possession loss has a way of turning up the temperature. Auburn fans are frustrated about coach Gus Malzahn’s latest offensive low mark, and plenty are questioning his future with the program after a bad early-season loss.
In this week’s mailbag, I answer some of the biggest questions about Auburn’s offensive game plan against Clemson and handle some of the Malzahn hot takes — but just the ones that won’t melt any computer or phone screens. Also in this week’s mailbag, an Auburn Twitter icon turns existential.
Special thanks to those who sent in questions on Twitter @JFergusonAU and asked them during SEC Country Auburn’s Facebook Live sessions with Lauren Shute and yours truly during the week. Let’s go.
ON THE AUBURN BEAT: Gus Malzahn needs to pass his next few eye tests
Todd Seagers: Biggest failure vs. Clemson: 1. O-line play? 2. QB play? 3. Offensive play-calling?
The offensive play-calling was the biggest failure against Clemson, because it made the first two problems even worse. After a well-called first quarter, outside of a couple of confusing red-zone choices, Auburn went into full panic mode with its decision-making.
Clemson’s stacked defensive line was having its way with Auburn’s offensive line, and that severely limited what Jarrett Stidham could do. Bad execution and straight-up losses in one-on-one situations are going to happen, especially this early in the season with new faces and a tough opponent on the road.
But Auburn kept chasing the big play against Clemson, trying to find that deep ball that could lead to a tie game out of nowhere. The Tigers abandoned the run in the second half — Kamryn Pettway only got six carries after halftime — and Clemson had the unimaginative deep routes well-covered for most of the games.
This game simply got away from Chip Lindsey and Gus Malzahn, and it torpedoed an already bad situation for Stidham and the offensive line.
Scott Fox: Did we need jet sweeps and short passing routes to keep Clemson’s aggressive defense out of the backfield?
Mr. Fox hits the nail on the head here — Auburn needed more quick-hitting plays against Clemson. Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins were great for Clemson, and Auburn gave them even more time to torment Stidham with its play-calling.
In order to counter a great pass rush, offenses must get the ball out of its quarterback’s hands quickly. That’s common football sense. Running it right up the gut against Lawrence and Wilkins wasn’t working either, so the Tigers could’ve used an Eli Stove sweep or Kam Martin outside run to shake things up.
Not only do these plays make good football sense, they also would’ve been easier throws for Stidham to make. Auburn’s quarterback needs confidence, and he hasn’t had much of a chance to build it in the first two weeks. Quicker throws would’ve helped Stidham settle down and helped Auburn have a much more realistic chance of tying the game in Death Valley.
LJ Furst: How big of a difference will it make w/Chip going upstairs and Herb coming on the sidelines? Also, who will be talking to Stidham w/Chip going in the booth?
If Lindsey is more comfortable coaching from up-top than on the sidelines, then it should help. It’s not like things can get much worse for the offense. Herb Hand coming to the sidelines could be the fire the offensive line needs on game days. Hand will be able to do hands-on coaching with his players between drives and provide face-to-face motivation, when necessary.
As for the communication with Stidham, Lindsey should still be able to communicate with his quarterback between drives. Because of Auburn’s no-huddle offense, there isn’t much coach-to-quarterback talk when the Tigers have the ball. I’m sure Malzahn also will have some input with Stidham from time to time.
Ryan Pearcy: In your opinion, will Gus make the needed offensive changes?
I think Malzahn knows his time at Auburn hinges on whether he can pull off another offensive turnaround after a slow start. Something has to change offensively, and he’s going to be motivated to do it. He’s done it a few times already in his coaching career.
Whether the changes he makes will be enough to get Auburn out of its offensive hole is a different story. I see too much talent on this offense for it not to work if Malzahn fixes its problems — whether it’s communication issues, personnel decisions or play-calling. These next two weeks are important “trial runs” to see if Malzahn can right the ship.
@stan1214: Why is Gus still holding the play sheet? I thought he gave it up?
Malzahn had a play sheet in his hand in Week 1 against Georgia Southern, but fans made a huge deal of it with the offense looking as bad as it did in Week 2. While Malzahn has repeatedly said he retired his clipboard and that Lindsey was calling plays, the fact of the matter is the Auburn coach is always going to have his fingerprints on this offense.
No successful head coach is completely hands-off, and there are a lot of similarities between Malzahn’s offense and Lindsey’s offense. So it shouldn’t be too surprising to see Malzahn have something in his hands on the sidelines. He’s still the head coach, and the biggest decisions will ultimately come down to him.
Robert McElroy: Where oh where is Sal Canella? Never saw him on the field Saturday, so did he even dress?
Cannella got a handful of snaps Saturday against Clemson. The most notable one came on the intentional grounding call with the reverse flea flicker. Cannella lined up as an H-back and ran a wheel route that Stidham should’ve at least tested with a deep ball. Instead, the play went out of bounds and was recorded as one of Clemson’s 11 sacks.
Auburn is still mixing and matching at wide receiver, and that’s probably where Cannella will be the majority of the time this season. He probably won’t be a starter, but coaches make it sound like he’ll be a factor in game plans moving forward. Keep an eye on him this Saturday.
Neal Miller: Where are the TEs? Why the bland WR routes?
Auburn hasn’t really run any offensive plays through the first two weeks that look all that different from last season. And since tight ends weren’t integral parts of the passing playbook last year — outside of the rare gadget play — it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that they haven’t been used that much through the first two weeks of the season.
Auburn has several bodies who can fill this role, including bigger redshirt freshman receiver Marquis McClain, so the next few weeks should be key to seeing just how much the Tigers will actually use them in 2017.
As for the bland wide receiver routes, they made some sense in Week 1 against Georgia Southern. But against Clemson, they were strategical failures. The intermediate routes and new combinations the Tigers showed off at A-Day have been few and far between. Lindsey said he has to a better job of calling those moving forward, and getting those going against Mercer would be a good start.
@NotSayi66386935: Why aren’t they using Will Hastings more?
Hastings was out on the field a good bit against Clemson after a big game by his standards against Georgia Southern. But his routes were predictable, and they didn’t take full advantage of what Auburn could’ve done against an aggressive defense.
Hunter Renfrow, Clemson’s own shifty slot specialist, had a few big catches against Auburn. For some strange reason, Hastings didn’t get those opportunities. It’s another in a long list of mysteries from the Week 2 play-calling.
Todd Christopher: Why is Carlton Davis struggling since his breakout freshman year?
I wouldn’t say Carlton Davis is necessarily “struggling.” He was on the wrong end of two big pass plays against Clemson last Saturday, but he was never beaten over the top in coverage. Clemson just went after him a few times on the 1-on-1 passes that Auburn didn’t try when it had the ball.
Davis had a down sophomore year by the standards he set for himself in 2015. However, this was a much better Clemson game from Davis than the one he had in 2016. While he was targeted quite a bit, he held his own on most of those plays. I personally think Davis is in for a strong junior season now that he has more depth around him.
Brian Stultz: Could Malzahn be coaching for his job against Mississippi State?
While I don’t think a loss to Mississippi State on Sept. 30 would necessarily mean he would get fired the next day, that would give Malzahn no margin for error for the rest of the season. The Tigers defense should give the offense some “figure-it-out” room in projected wins over Mercer, Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. If Auburn loses one of those, the Malzahn hot-seat talk will be more than valid.
@jdh1605: If Auburn somehow loses to Mercer, will Gus Malzahn be the coach against Missouri?
If Auburn loses to Mercer, it might as well shut down the football program for the rest of the season and come back in January with a clean slate.
Tim: Isn’t all this panic extreme overreaction? Lost 14-6 to defending national champions on the road in the second game of the year — and AU’s defense looked like one of the nation’s best. What has changed? Just like before the season, it will likely all come down to Oct 14 at Baton Rouge. If Auburn can win what is a near-toss up, the Iron Bowl will still likely decide the West. What am I missing?
Tim wrote a lot here, but I wanted to include it all. He makes some good points — Clemson is a fantastic program, and Auburn’s defense looks like its best in a long time. In the grand scheme of things, an 8-point loss to Clemson doesn’t keep Auburn from competing for any championships this season.
Frustration with the offense is definitely warranted, even though firing talk is extreme at this point. Malzahn has orchestrated some turnarounds on offense before at Auburn, and the pieces are there to do the same now. Also, this defense makes it even easier for the offense to fix its issues than in years past.
Auburn should be 5-1 heading into LSU. If it goes to Baton Rouge — which is another extremely tough place to play — and it still looks that ineffective offensively against a top-tier defense in a loss, then the rest of the season looks bleak. If Auburn loses a well-played game at a venue it hasn’t won since 1999, then it’s a completely different situation.
Right now, it’s more than fine to be frustrated. But there are still 10 games left in the season, and Auburn is talented enough to be in every game it plays. In September and early October, true panic should only come if Auburn still looks awful offensively against a team it should beat. Until then, there’s enough reason to stay on the ledge.
@Aubielicious: why is football
Because Americans can only seem to fully embrace sports they invented, and people didn’t like playing baseball in the cold.