AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn didn’t want to concede much, particularly about his Auburn offense, after his team’s 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night.
He didn’t want to admit the quarterback shuffle might have been Malzahn outsmarting himself. He didn’t elect to acknowledge his team’s lack of rhythm with the constant game of musical chairs behind center.
But he did show his disappointment in one facet of the Auburn offense — the run game.
“That was probably the biggest disappointment for me, running the football,” Malzahn said.
There were flashes, like the late touchdown drive led by sophomore running back Kerryon Johnson, that offer hope in having another successful season in the rushing game.
But Malzahn’s run-oriented offense saw a steep decline from the level of production achieved the previous three seasons when the Tigers averaged 328.3 rushing yards per game in 2013, 255.5 yards in ’14 and 196.3 yards last season. Following that downward trend, Auburn recorded just 87 yards of rushing in the season-opening loss, which was the lowest rushing total for Auburn since Malzahn took over as head coach.
That figure looked gloomy, even compared to the subpar passing game, which ended the night at 175 yards.
“We’re a run to play-action team, and we weren’t really able to establish that run,” Malzahn said.
With all the focus on the quarterback carousel, the head-scratching moments that happened at running back did not receive as much attention.
After Jovon Robinson’s dismissal early in fall camp, Johnson ultimately separated himself from a four-player pack. But even on Saturday, he seemed to lack the confidence of the coaching staff early on despite his own suggestion that it was part of the “plan.”
Johnson’s only two carries of the opening period came in the final drive of the quarter. That meant he earned his first touches in the running game after H-back Chandler Cox and wide receiver Stanton Truitt got their first totes (Truitt actually had three carries before Johnson’s first).
“I mean as a competitor it’s frustrating, but we had a plan and we came out and executed the plan,” Johnson said. “We do things, all coaches do things, all players do things. We had a plan we came out and did the plan. I knew going in that that I wasn’t going to have as many touches throughout the first quarter and just had to make up for it in the second, third and fourth.”
It’s fair to wonder whether the constant quarterback change affected the running game’s rhythm. Johnson said otherwise publicly.
And by the end of the game, the running game — Johnson, especially — found a groove. In the only touchdown drive for Auburn, Johnson, who assumed a Wildcat role, took carries for 18 yards and 9 yards. The 18-yarder was the longest run play of the night for the Tigers. The 9-yarder served as the only touchdown play.
In fact, Johnson ended his outing with 94 yards on 23 carries, which puts him in reasonable position to continue the program’s 1,000-yard rusher legacy, which has seen seven different players eclipse the mark since 2009 (Mike Dyer and Tre Mason reached the plateau twice). Johnson appears to be the only logical successor to the throne.
Perhaps the biggest concern in the running game, however, stemmed from the quarterback battle. Sean White tallied minus-2 yards on his four carries, which included a 7-yard scamper out of traffic. Jeremy Johnson lost 18 yards on his six carries, including the disappointing failed fourth-and-1 try deep in Clemson territory.
And John Franklin III, the quarterback noted for his running ability? He didn’t run the ball once from start to finish, despite seeing the field on multiple occasions. Franklin’s highlight might’ve been his running threat — unused as it may have been — which helped jumpstart a third-quarter drive.
Even then, Malzahn’s decision to swap quarterbacks ended any ground-game rhythm the Tigers developed.
“(Clemson wasn’t) giving us much,” Malzahn said. “The defensive ends were knifing up field and trying to get the edge as we were handing things off. There wasn’t a whole lot of quarterback run opportunities.”