AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn might have felt some deja vu Saturday night underneath the south end zone of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
As he stood at the podium in the crowded media room adjacent to a disappointed home locker room, the Auburn head coach highlighted one period of play as the difference in yet another home loss to a Power Five program.
“That was an extremely tough loss tonight,” Malzahn said after Auburn’s 29-16 defeat to Texas A&M. “I really thought the third quarter was the key to the game. We were in a dog fight until the third quarter.”
Two weeks earlier — almost to the exact hour — Malzahn stood at the same podium with the same frustrated look on his face and lamented the same third-quarter issues for the same lackluster Auburn offense.
Against Clemson, Auburn had two third-quarter drives that ended with turnovers inside the opposing 10-yard line. Those missed opportunities kept Clemson ahead just enough to pull off a 19-13 win over the host Tigers.
On Saturday night against Texas A&M, Auburn’s offense fell flat in the same quarter.
This time, it barely even moved.
Auburn finished the third quarter with 35 yards of total offense — an abysmal 1.7 yards per play. The Tigers had 4 rushing yards on 9 carries after averaging 4.2 yards per touch in the first half. Kamryn Pettway, who led Auburn with 123 rushing yards, only had two back-to-back carries for 7 yards in that quarter.
Auburn rushed for 4 yards in the third quarter. Just like the Clemson game, I'm somewhat baffled by what Auburn's trying to do.
— Nathan Deal (@NattyD13) September 18, 2016
“It was pretty frustrating for us, but we know we’ve got to keep our intensity up,” Pettway said. “We’ve got to keep each other up in order to keep things going.”
A major problem for Auburn was the to-go distances on third downs. In the third quarter alone, Auburn faced third-down distances of 10, 10, 17 and 23. On a third-and-3, Auburn elected to go with a quick pass to Marcus Davis that fell incomplete.
“One of the things that stuck out to me offensively was the amount of third down-and-7-plus (yards) plays,” Malzahn said. “We were really wanting the third-and-short, but we had some negative plays. The inconsistency on offense was the key to the game.”
Because of its major struggles against Clemson and Texas A&M, Auburn’s third-quarter offense has been one of the worst in the country through the season’s first three weeks.
The Tigers are averaging 3.27 yards per carry in the third quarter, which ranks 98th in the FBS. (Last year, Auburn rushed for 5.11 yards per carry in the third.) Through the air, Auburn ranks 100th in the FBS in pass efficiency in the third quarter and has only picked up 6 first downs on 29 passing attempts.
What’s even more frustrating for Auburn is that these third-quarter slumps are coinciding with some of the best ball from its defense. In the third quarters against Clemson and Texas A&M, Auburn allowed just 125 yards and 6 points. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 36.4 percent of their passes in the third quarter against Auburn, which ranks seventh in the nation.
Against Texas A&M, Auburn’s defense forced three straight 3-and-outs after halftime. Two of Clemson’s three third-quarter drives in Week 1 went 3-and-out. But in both situations, the Auburn offense couldn’t capitalize.
“I thought our defense played very well,” Malzahn said. “They gave our offense a ton of opportunities, and the offense just couldn’t seize the moment.”
Those missed opportunities will continue to rattle in the heads of Auburn players and coaches throughout the week as they prepare for another SEC West home matchup against LSU.
Another loss there would give Auburn its worst start to the season since 2012, when the Tigers went 3-9 and later fired head coach Gene Chizik.
Starting left guard Alex Kozan was there as a freshman for that nightmare season on the Plains and sat out with a redshirt. He said the problems for Auburn’s offense aren’t as massive as they were in 2012, but the pressure to execute, especially in the second half, is there.
“It’s frustrating, but we’re close,” Kozan said. “I was here in 2012, and we were getting blown out in those games. It’s just that we’re not finishing games (this year). We’re not scoring when we need to score and taking advantage of our opportunities.
“We’ve got to execute on that. That’s what good teams do. That’s what teams in the SEC that win those games do. … We’re not where we need to be to finish games.”