AUBURN, Ala. — It’s become common knowledge in college football over the last several seasons that Auburn doesn’t exactly do what’s expected of it on the football field.
But even the general sense of the unexpected that normally surrounds the Plains couldn’t explain Auburn’s 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson in its 2016 season opener.
A Gus Malzahn team looked mostly lifeless on offense in the first half, and a new level of strange decisions from the fourth-year head coach only generated 262 yards on 71 plays. That averages out to an abysmal 3.7 per snap.
Offensively…I haven't seen a game called more poorly since the '98 UVA game!!! #horrible
— Ben Leard (@btleard) September 4, 2016
On the other side, Auburn’s defense played one of its best games against a title contender since the days Tommy Tuberville roamed the sidelines. It held one of the best players in college football to a simply average night, which have been rare for him as a starter.
In the end, though, Auburn’s once-feared offense carried over its 2015 headaches to a new season, letting down the defense. “Bizarre” doesn’t do what happened at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night complete justice.
Auburn’s offense had two third-quarter drives end in Clemson territory with zero points.
With a defense playing at a surprisingly high level against a national title contender, Auburn was firmly in the game with Clemson in the third quarter. A Greg Huegel field goal early in the period made it 13-3.
Auburn responded by moving the ball 39 yards on just five plays, which was the best the offense had looked all night to that point. But a move to Jeremy Johnson culminated in an interception.
The Auburn defense responded by forcing a pick of its own a few plays later, but the offense couldn’t cash in on a 12-play drive that included a pair of fourth-down conversions. Auburn’s quarterback shuffle — more on that later — fell flat with a fourth-down stuff of Johnson at the Clemson 5-yard line. If Auburn would’ve been able to turn both of those drives into points of any kind, it could’ve trailed Clemson by a possession or led it heading into the fourth quarter.
Instead, it had to wait until early in the fourth to hit a second field goal, and Clemson made Auburn pay on the ensuing drive with a gut-punch touchdown drive. Auburn would score a late touchdown and get a shot at a Hail Mary winner thanks to weird decisions by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, but the visitors were able to hang on thanks in large part to those missed opportunities.
This close. pic.twitter.com/uyp5nkOEol
— Benjamin Wolk (@benjaminwolk) September 4, 2016
Is the Auburn defense ready to step up?
The answer here was a resounding yes. New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s unit had several first-time starters, especially at linebacker. It was facing an offense led by a serious Heisman contender and filled with experienced skill players from a team that took Alabama to the brink in last season’s national title game.
Yet the Auburn defense didn’t flinch. It performed above expectations, putting decent pressure on Watson and doing a great job of containing him to just 21 rushing yards. Deshaun Davis, a sophomore linebacker, was the star of the first half with his ability to make impact plays.
Auburn’s secondary bailed Watson out with some penalties, dropped interceptions and miscues on a constant back-shoulder toss to returning star receiver Mike Williams. But it was far from the highlight-reel day Watson got used to last season in his campaign to a third-place spot in the Heisman Trophy race.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best defensive performance Auburn has had against a legitimate power since Malzahn took over in 2013. The defense gave Auburn one more chance to win in the dying moments. The problems, shockingly enough, came on the side of the ball Malzahn once ruled.
What in the world is Auburn doing at quarterback?
Gus Malzahn shuffled quarterbacks in and out of the game without any rhyme or reason. Even on sustained drives when it looked like one signal-caller was taking control, he would slide in another between plays.
The shuffle stood out the most in the third quarter, when Auburn moved the ball with White before putting Johnson in on second down. Two plays later, he threw a pick. Johnson also was stuffed on a fourth-and-2, ensuring one of Auburn’s longest drives of the night ended with zero points.
Play with one QB please Auburn!!!
— Sammie Coates (@sammiecoates11) September 4, 2016
While the quarterback carousel had to keep Clemson’s defense on its toes, it made it virtually impossible for Auburn to sustain any offensive momentum. (A rough night for the offensive line didn’t help matters, either.) Quarterbacks would come in for single plays — even positive ones — and immediately come off the field.
The game of “musical quarterbacks” looked like a case of Malzahn getting too clever and too creative, which he was guilty of several times last fall when the Tigers slumped to the worst offensive season of his collegiate coaching career. Auburn needs to find a plan and stick to it next Saturday against Arkansas State.
87. Auburn, which led the nation in rushing just three seasons ago as it finished the season at the BCS National Championship Game, was held to just 87 rushing yards. All but one of those came in the second half. Without a strong running game for most of the night, Malzahn’s offense just can’t — and probably won’t — click like it should.
Justin Ferguson is the Auburn beat writer for the AJC’s SEC Country. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.