Auburn coach Gus Malzahn may not have a good answer to the above question following Saturday night’s puzzling 19-13 loss.
New coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense put forth a heroic effort against No. 2 Clemson. The mighty Dabo Swinney scoring machine mustered only 19 points and a hair above 5 yards per play in the season opener. Heisman Trophy contender Deshaun Watson was limited to a 55 percent completion rate and accounted for just 21 yards on the ground.
After years of struggling to field a respectable defense, Auburn contained an offensive juggernaut. The defensive line — perhaps as deep as any in the country — came as advertised. The linebackers dished out some big hits. Josh Holsey intercepted Watson immediately after Auburn threw one of its own. There’s real talent and promise on that side.
But what was happening on offense?
The Tigers’ three quarterbacks got exposure in this one, and none of it was what you’d call “good publicity.”
Sean White went 10 of 21 with a pick. Jeremy Johnson went 4 of 6 with a pick. John Franklin III completed one pass for negative yardage. At one point, Auburn even put all three on the field at the same time.
None of it worked.
Running backs Chandler Cox and Kerryon Johnson saw quarterback snaps in the Wildcat formation, for good measure. Those efforts were mostly fruitless, too.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing multiple quarterbacks, but subbing them like defensive linemen and trotting out bizarre formations made the game plan look like guesswork.
The staff made changes mid-drive, after big plays, just as the offense was starting to build momentum. Malzahn clearly thought this was a good idea, perhaps a way to keep powerful Clemson guessing, but ultimately it looked more like self-sabotage than anything else.
Auburn’s alleged strength, its ground game, was just as ineffective. Kerryon Johnson averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Stanton Truitt and Cox recorded less than 2 yards per touch.
Taking a field goal late in the third quarter — instead of sending Jeremy Johnson straight into the teeth of Clemson’s defense on 4th-and-1 — could have saved face, or at the least given them a chance to tie the game late. The same could be said when Clemson intercepted White on 4th-and-goal one quarter later.
Possessing one of college football’s best kickers, Malzahn gambled away 6 easy points in a 6-point loss.
Despite all of this, Auburn found itself a touchdown away from taking the lead with 3:22 left in the fourth quarter. On their next and final possession, the Tigers took over at their own 15 with 40 seconds to go and no timeouts.
Good clock management could have saved them here. Another mark against Malzahn. White heaved a couple of last-gasp passes to the end zone; they were batted away, just like our expectations of reasonable quarterback play on The Plains.
From a schematic and management standpoint, this game was horrendously handled. You don’t even have to take my word for it. Here’s what former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard thinks:
Offensively…I haven't seen a game called more poorly since the '98 UVA game!!! #horrible
— Ben Leard (@btleard) September 4, 2016
(For context, Virginia beat Auburn 19-0 that year, limiting the Tigers to 8 first downs and 18 rushing yards.)
More worrisome, however, was the reaction from Auburn fans, who began filing out of Jordan-Hare Stadium during the fourth quarter.
Aaaaaand fans are heading for the exits.
— Benjamin Wolk (@benjaminwolk) September 4, 2016
Malzahn and protege Rhett Lashlee were hired on the premise they were offensive innovators bringing a unique system to the SEC that, with the right players, was nearly impossible to stop.
The bigger the sample size gets, however, the more we’re given the impression that those at Auburn are improvising. The leash is short already.
At what point does it become clear that change needs to be made?
Unfortunately for Malzahn, that’s a question athletic director Jay Jacobs can and will answer.