After a tumultuous 2015 season that offered more questions than answers, not much has changed a year later. Facing the number two team in the country, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made a number of questionable decisions that, end the end, could have been the difference between winning and losing.
Clemson came in confident, looking to start a path back to the national championship game. Early on, the defense showed what their experience and talent could lead to. On Clemson’s first offensive drive, linebacker Deshaun Davis batted down Deshaun Watson’s pass to force a turnover on downs. From there, fans got their first look at an Auburn offense that would struggle for most of the game. In fact, in the first half, Auburn racked up just 37 total yards of offense on their way to just a seven point halftime deficit.
One of the biggest surprises about the offense was the endless rotation at quarterback. After Malzahn announced that Sean White would be Auburn’s starter to open the season, fans saw a steady stream of quarterbacks Saturday night. White did start the game, but Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III both saw an unexpected number of snaps. Johnson appeared to find a rhythm on one drive, but quickly threw an interception to kill an Auburn drive. White also threw an interception, and was under 50 percent on pass completions for the game. It’s clear that moving forward, Auburn and Gus Malzahn will have to find steady quarterback play, or they will waste the best defense Auburn has had in Gus Malzahn’s tenure.
One positive from the offense’s performance was the running game, more specifically,
the play of Kerryon Johnson. With the dismissal of Jovon Robinson at the beginning of fall practice, Auburn needed someone to step up and become the feature back. After one game, it’s clear they’ve found their answer. Johnson carried the ball 23 times for 94 yards and a touchdown against one of the best defenses in the nation. While there are many questions left unanswered on offense, it’s good to know the running game will be in good hands.
In Kevin Steele’s first game as defensive coordinator, he showed why Malzahn was so excited to steal him away from LSU. Auburn held one of the nation’s best offenses and the current frontrunner for the Heisman trophy to just 19 points, a fact not lost on Gus Malzahn after a tough loss.
“I am very proud of our defense,” Malzahn said. “Holding those guys to 19 points was really unbelievable, as far as the effort.”
If this is the defense Auburn fans can expect to see all season, there are better things on the horizon.
In the end, when you look at who deserves the blame for Auburn’s 0-1 start, the needle points at Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Malzahn played desperate from kickoff, foregoing field goals and going for it on fourth downs. Combining that with the indecisiveness at quarterback and it’s easy to see how members of the coaching staff are to blame for the six point loss. As the season goes on, Malzahn will have to show the magic that made him 2013’s national coach of the year or Auburn will once again find themselves in the market for a new head coach.