OXFORD, Miss. — Gus Malzahn gave a thumbs up and a wave to cheering Auburn fans on his way off the field, and high-fived a row of supporters on his way into a dark tunnel headed toward the visitors’ locker room.
Malzahn was back on the winning side, after leading his Tigers team to a 31-16 win over Ole Miss on the road on Saturday.
He was as calm as ever in that, and as reserved as ever, keeping his emotions close to the vest as always, as he acknowledged and thanked those traveling fans, who cheered and applauded him after a rocky few weeks on the Plains.
But what those fans didn’t know was that, in that moment, they were cheering a different Gus Malzahn.
That’s according to Auburn star middle linebacker Deshaun Davis, the team’s outspoken vocal leader, who said he’s seen different traits out Malzahn in the last week as the Tigers’ season pushed closer to the brink.
“He has a different swagger about himself,” Davis said, moments later, after that win. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re in the position we’re in.
“But he’s a different guy. I can tell you that.”
Under his lead, Auburn played like a different team on Saturday — certainly different from the team that struggled in losses to Mississippi State and to Tennessee during the two weeks before, and possibly more like the team the Tigers were expected to be when they garnered high national rankings in the preseason.
And as for Malzahn, he showed a noticeably different fire early in the game’s fourth quarter, before he was flagged with a rare unsportsmanlike conduct foul charged to him from the sideline, in the moments after a long Auburn run was called back on a holding call.
“Well, I’m going to fight for our players,” Malzahn said flatly in his postgame press conference, when asked about that sequence. “That’s what happened.”
Tigers players said they fed off that fire.
“That was the first time I’ve ever seen Coach Malzahn just get that upset in a game for us,” Auburn junior defensive lineman Marlon Davidson said. “I mean, it was incredible. That gave us drive.
“When you see your coach fighting for you, you want to fight for your coach. I love Coach Malzahn. I hope he’s here for a long time, especially with me.”
That holding call was charged on what would’ve been a 20-plus-yard run by Auburn running back Malik Miller. It was brought back for a holding call on redshirt freshman offensive lineman Austin Troxell, who was playing in place of starting right tackle Jack Driscoll, who went down with injury earlier in the game.
“It was exciting man,” Auburn junior left guard Marquel Harrell said. “Because Coach Malzahn is usually like a chill person, but then seeing him get the 15 yards, I was like, ‘Yeah, Coach,’ and super happy because I was yelling at the sideline. I was like, ‘yeah,’ just trying to get the crowd into it.
“I’m proud, man.”
For Davis, though, that moment of fire isn’t what’s made Malzahn a different coach.
Davis said he noticed that change in Malzahn all week in practice, after Auburn’s second straight loss against Tennessee.
“All week. All week,” Davis said. “He’s been more active with players, gameplan wise. … just been more loose. He’s been himself. But you can tell he’s tweaking some things, also.”
Davis didn’t put any blame on his coach as he spoke. The coach doesn’t go out on the field and play, Davis said. But regardless, Davis said, Malzahn has been shouldering blame during the Tigers’ tough stretch and has been holding himself accountable for mistakes, and, Davis said, that’s led the team’s players to follow their coaches’ lead.
“As a leader, as a player, you can say things aren’t working,” Davis said. “It takes a man to say, ‘OK, maybe I’m doing something wrong. Let me change this.’ It’s not on him really — he doesn’t have to go out there and play.
“We are the players on this team, and we look in the mirror and say, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ … Because our coach has been doing it, our players have been doing it.”
This week, that led Auburn to a bounce-back win in Mississippi.