We have good news and bad news for you, Tigers fans, regarding the Auburn offense.
If you finished watching your team lose to LSU on Saturday, thought “Auburn’s defense deserved better than that,” and were immediately overcome with a crippling sense of deja vu, here’s the good news: You weren’t alone. You had good reason to feel that way.
Here’s the bad news: You weren’t alone. You had good reason to feel that way.
The “Steele Curtain” could have done more to prevent LSU’s pair of first-half touchdowns, it’s true. Between multiple breakdowns in the secondary and Daniel Thomas’ dropped interception, the Tigers played their own major role in assisting LSU’s sputtering offense. But the Auburn defense did more than enough to win the game after halftime, holding Matt Canada’s attack to a pair of field goals on scoring “drives” of 19 and 6 yards.
In the end, the defeat was Auburn’s sixth of the last three seasons in which the Tigers defense gave up 20 points or fewer (not including an opponent’s special teams or defensive scores). Of those six, the loss in Baton Rouge may have been the most painful, the most inexplicable — and almost certainly the most worrisome for Gus Malzahn’s tenure going forward.
Let’s look back at those six losses to explain why:
2015: Mississippi State 17, Auburn 9. The Tigers gained 25 first downs and a respectable 389 total yards in Sean White’s first career start, but struggled mightily in the red zone, failed to generate any explosive plays, and finished the game without finding the end zone.
2015: Georgia 20, Auburn 13. Foreshadowing even more maddening things to come, Mark Richt’s offense produced just 13 points in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but Auburn starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson and an injury-hampered White averaged an inconceivable 2.3 yards per passing attempt as the Tigers scored 6 points over the game’s final 55 minutes. Isaiah McKenzie’s 53-yard punt return for touchdown — gosh, that sounds familiar — helped provide the final margin for Georgia.
2016: Clemson 19, Auburn 13. We have to expose the wound to allow it to heal, right?
Nevermind. Let’s just wear the bandage forever. No one will notice. If they do, we’ll start talking about the weather, or trees.
2016: Georgia 13, Auburn 7. With Kevin Steele’s defense holding the Bulldogs to 4.5 yards per play, a pair of field goals, and no touchdowns between the hedges, all Auburn’s offense had to accomplish over the final three quarters was a net score of zero points. Again: All Auburn’s offense had to do for 45 minutes was score as many points as Georgia’s defense. Not more points than Georgia’s defense. Merely as many points.
They scored seven fewer.
2017: Clemson 14, Auburn 6. In maybe the most impressive performance of the Steele era to-date, the Tigers defense went into Death Valley and held the defending national champions to just 14 points and 4.2 yards per play, their weakest production in either department since 2014. Auburn’s offense showed its gratitude by averaging 1.8 yards per play — One! Point! Eight! — and gaining fewer total yards over its last 10 non-end-of-half possessions (68) than on its first drive of the game (69).
2017: LSU 27, Auburn 23. In fairness to Malzahn’s and Chip Lindsey’s offense, its performance Saturday wasn’t like the start-to-finish failures* on the rest of this list. If not for the punting unit’s meltdown on DJ Chark’s 75-yard touchdown return, the 23 first-half points scored by the offense could — quite possibly would — have been enough to earn the victory.
But, of course, the game’s not 30 minutes long, and Auburn’s second-half offense — and special teams — didn’t just fail to score points. Starting with third-and-1 at midfield early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers:
- rushed for no gain;
- gutlessly chose to punt over taking advantage of its best field position of the half, the latest evidence Malzahn has been quietly replaced by an inept doppelganger;
- punted for 27 yards;
- after taking over on their own 3-yard line, rushed on first down for the 17th consecutive time (losing a yard) despite knowing a three-and-out would all-but-guarantee an LSU field-goal attempt;
- went three-and-out;
- watched LSU take over at the Auburn 45 and kick the eventual game-winning field goal.
No, the Auburn defense didn’t help itself during this sequence by giving up a field-flipping 29-yard completion on third-and-15. But that only emphasizes how little margin for error this kind of offense (and special teams) provides; when they play the way they played in the second half, a single defensive mistake becomes catastrophic.
And unlike the other meltdowns on Malzahn’s offensive watch over the last three seasons, there were no mitigating factors at play Saturday. Jarrett Stidham wasn’t a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first career start. He wasn’t Jeremy Johnson coming off the bench. He wasn’t battling a serious shoulder injury. He wasn’t facing Clemson’s defense on the road. (Even including Auburn’s first-half success, it gained less per play vs. LSU than either Mississippi State, Florida or Troy.) Kerryon Johnson gave Auburn a healthy option at tailback. With a nine-point lead and its defense playing well, Auburn’s playbook wasn’t constrained by the score.
Casey Dunn’s injury didn’t help, but otherwise every element Malzahn could reasonably want was in place for his offense to win the game. The second half represented what should have been the culmination of the last three seasons of post-Nick Marshall trial-and-error, the perfect chance for the Auburn offense to finally put the failures of 2015, 2016 and early this season behind them.
It did not. So it becomes fair to ask: when will it? If Malzahn is still incapable of preventing these collapses in the games that matter most to Auburn fans, what evidence is there he’ll prevent another one at his next opportunity? Why should Auburn fans continue to believe anything will change?
Unlike against Mississippi State two seasons ago, Georgia last November, or even Clemson six games ago, there’s no clear answer to that question. Until Malzahn provides one,** the failure Saturday will stand alone as the most damaging of his Auburn tenure.
*Or, more accurately, start-of-the-second-quarter-to-finish failures.
**No, he cannot do so against Arkansas, and probably not against Texas A&M.