AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn’s reputation as a football coach was built on being an “offensive genius.”
His teams used to ace even the toughest challenges on the offensive side of the ball, sometimes to the detriment of the defense on his sideline. One would expect honor roll on offense and some remedial work on defense.
But Saturday night, that quickly flipped for Malzahn and Auburn. His Tigers struggled on offense but led the charge on defense in a bizarre 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson.
Let’s hand out some Saturday night grades for this strange set of pupils in orange and blue. The grading scale here is A+ being a legendary performance, C being average and F being a complete failure.
It’s difficult to separate this quarterback grade from the coaching that put the unit in that position. Altogether, Auburn’s quarterbacks combined to go 15 of 28 for 175 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Sean White attempted 21 of those passes, completing 10 for 140 yards and a late interception on fourth down.
Jeremy Johnson went 4 of 6 for 38 yards and a pick of his own, while John Franklin III — who did nothing more than hand the ball off — lost 3 yards on his lone attempt. Johnson’s interception ended one of Auburn’s only sustained drives, and White misfired on some wide-open chances, including a potential touchdown toss to Chandler Cox.
But White bumps this grade up somewhat by leading Auburn into Hail Mary range on the final drive of the night. If White had played the entire game and didn’t have to deal with the questionable rotation with Johnson, he would’ve been closer to average.
Running Backs: D+
Auburn only used three running backs, and they combined for just 107 net yards. With the negative yardage from Sean White and Jeremy Johnson sacks, the Tigers finished with 87 rushing yards — the worst of the Malzahn era.
The most telling stat of the night was flashed around at halftime, as Auburn only had 1 rushing yard in the first two quarters. Kerryon Johnson led a small second-half surge by finishing with 94 yards and Auburn’s lone touchdown, a 9-yard run that gave the hosts a late chance. Twenty-nine of Johnson’s yards came on that penultimate drive.
That burst through the hole by Kerryon Johnson here — whew. https://t.co/osFFwsKehR
— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) September 4, 2016
Backup running back Kamryn Pettway didn’t record a single touch. The same went for freshmen Kam Martin and Malik Miller. But H-back Chandler Cox got important carries, and wide receiver Stanton Truitt took the first two handoffs of the season. Like the quarterbacks, a strange rotation handcuffed a running back corps that showed its inexperience.
Wide Receivers: B-
This grade might seem strange considering the passing attack’s woes, but Auburn couldn’t blame much of that on those catching the passes. Drops weren’t a real issue, and some receivers shined with blocking downfield to spring the few explosive plays the Tigers generated.
Marcus Davis looked set in his leadership role with a team-high five receptions for 56 yards. True freshman Kyle Davis had a 43-yard catch to spark a fourth-quarter drive that reached the red zone. Will Hastings, the walk-on kicker-turned-receiver, had three clutch catches — two third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion.
Six wide receivers got in the stat book, which is somewhat encouraging for a unit that had so many question marks headed into the season. While they couldn’t pull down the last-minute Hail Mary and had difficulty getting separation in several key moments, this was an above-average night for first-year wide receiver coach Kodi Burns’ unit.
Offensive Line: F
Auburn’s offensive line was supposed to be one of its strengths heading into the season. However, it was the most glaring offensive weakness in its season opener. Even when Auburn could get consistency on offense through the “quarterback carousel,” the front five still had major issues.
Broadcast pretending like it matters which QB Auburn plays is cute. Auburn hasn't blocked Clemson all night.
— SB Nation Recruiting (@SBNRecruiting) September 4, 2016
Clemson only sacked Auburn quarterbacks twice, but it had a massive 13 tackles for loss. To put that in perspective, the national leader in tackles for loss per game last season, Boston College, averaged 9.5 per contest. New starting tackles Austin Golson and Robert Leff had issues on the edges with the likes of Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell. True freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence also got major pressure up the middle.
To make matters worse, Auburn couldn’t generate much punch up front in the running game, as the longest carry of the night went for 18 yards. For an offense that used to thrive on chaining explosive plays on the ground, Auburn looked lost up front in offensive line coach Herb Hand’s debut.
Defensive Line: B+
Auburn’s experienced and star-heavy defensive line didn’t stuff the stat sheet. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson never went down for a sack, and Devaroe Lawrence was the only lineman to record a tackle for loss.
The line’s impact, though, can be found elsewhere. Watson rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and had five different games with at least 100 yards on the ground. On Saturday night, Watson only had 21 rushing yards on 11 carries. Auburn was able to get pressure on Watson and force him into some tough throws while keeping him contained.
Dual-threat quarterbacks have been a major thorn in Auburn’s side during the Malzahn era. Watson was a prime candidate to put up big numbers if the Auburn defense didn’t improve. It did, and it all started up front with decent pressure and excellent contain.
Auburn turned back the clock at linebacker in a major way. The Tigers haven’t looked this strong at the position against a championship-caliber offense since Tommy Tuberville was the head coach.
If Auburn's linebackers are as good as they've shown so far this game, this defense is going to be Tigers' best since Tubby era by a mile.
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) September 4, 2016
The starting linebacker trio of Deshaun Davis, Tre’ Williams and Darrell Williams made impact plays. Davis was a bright spot from the beginning in run-stopping and pass coverage, while Darrell Williams forced a big fumble in Auburn territory. Those two were first-time starters playing under a new linebacker coach in Travis Williams.
It wasn’t a perfect performance from the Auburn linebackers, but it was vastly improved from the last several seasons — and it came against an offense that could be one of the best in the country. The linebackers set the tone for the defense and an extremely loud Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Defensive Backs: B
When Auburn’s defensive backs were good, they were fantastic. When they were off their game, the team suffered. All in all, it was a surprisingly good performance from the Tigers secondary, led by yet another new position coach in Wesley McGriff.
Oft-injured senior Josh Holsey stepped up with an impressive interception in the third quarter and a pair of pass breakups. The versatile Johnathan Ford led the team in tackles for loss with 1.5. Nick Ruffin and Tray Matthews chipped in a combined 19 tackles to lead the way, and there were few misses back there.
The secondary let Watson off the hook with a pair of dropped interceptions and some bad penalties in pressure situations, and Clemson star Mike Williams looked unguardable on back-shoulder throws against Javaris Davis and Carlton Davis. Still, holding Watson to 248 yards on 39 attempts are numbers any secondary would love, especially one that has struggled as much as Auburn’s in recent seasons.
Special Teams: C+
Kicker Daniel Carlson set an Auburn record for career field goals of 50-plus yards in his first game as a junior. He continues to be an ultra-reliable weapon whenever the Tigers offense makes it into opposing territory.
That was Daniel Carlson sixth 50-plus-yard field goal. That's an Auburn record
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) September 4, 2016
Punter Kevin Phillips’ average is heavily weighted by a 68-yard punt that took an extremely favorable bounce down the sideline and into the Clemson red zone. Outside of that special boot, Phillips had punts of 36, 36, 40 and 42. That’s not a terrible night, but it’s definitely not good.
Johnathan Ford was the only player to record a return of any kind Saturday night as Clemson’s Andy Teasdall had punts that went for three fair catches and one touchback. His longest kick return went for 21 yards, giving him a solid night.
Coaching: F (offense) and A (defense)
Malzahn said there was a method to his madness on offense. Certain quarterbacks played in certain packages, even though most of the players Auburn made available after the game said they didn’t know that was going to be the case.
But the quarterback rotation throughout the game and way-too-clever offensive play-calling on the early drives drained most of Auburn’s chances at generating offensive momentum. It looked at times like Auburn didn’t have an offensive plan. If the rotation was the plan, it was an ineffective one.
Offensively…I haven't seen a game called more poorly since the '98 UVA game!!! #horrible
— Ben Leard (@btleard) September 4, 2016
Defensively, though, new coordinator Kevin Steele and his assistants executed their plan to slow Watson quite well. The Tigers forced the Heisman hopeful into obvious passing downs and made a concerted effort to keep him from hurting them too much with his legs. That half of the plan led to a fantastic performance on defense. But the offensive side led it to a loss.
A horrible offense and a great defense average out to a middle-of-the-road grade for Auburn. Any improvement on the attack would’ve resulted in a huge upset on a weekend full of them in college football. Holding Clemson to 19 points is a win for this program.
Auburn can build on this. Some experts expected a big win for the visiting Tigers from the ACC. If the defense can play like this week in and week out, this is a team that can deliver the bounce back Malzahn and his staff need in 2016.
But the offense needs to find a new plan at quarterback and improvement on the offensive line, or the subpar grades might become an all-too-common theme at Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall.
Justin Ferguson is the Auburn beat writer for the AJC’s SEC Country. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.