A quick glance at the stat sheet would suggest that Auburn’s new-look offense got off to an exceptional start.
In the Tigers’ season-opening 37-13 win over Louisiana Tech last week, they racked up 556 yards of total offense, 301 of it on the ground. Freshman Onterio McCalebb rushed for 148 yards, and quarterback Chris Todd passed for 255 yards and two touchdowns, including a school-record 93-yard scoring pass to Terrell Zachery.
It was the first game running new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s spread scheme, but from a coach’s point of view, there are plenty of wrinkles to iron out.
“As you go back and you look at the overall concept of what you’re trying to do, people can look at everything on paper and say, ‘Wow, that’s a good deal,’” first-year head coach Gene Chizik said. “But the pace we really need to play with on this level week in and week out has to be much faster.”
Malzahn echoed that sentiment.
“There’s times that we want to speed it up, and last week at times we weren’t doing a very good job of it,” he said.
Auburn (1-0) will pit its version of the spread against Mississippi State’s version Saturday in both teams’ SEC opener. The Bulldogs (1-0) will face a scheme that Malzahn has employed masterfully in stops at Arkansas and Tulsa.
And as many proponents of the spread must do, he battles misconceptions about his offense. Like the one about it being a pass-first scheme.
Against Louisiana Tech, Auburn ran the ball 52 times against 27 pass attempts.
“We’re a run, play-action team. For whatever reason, a lot of people think we’re a throw it (team),” Malzahn said. “Last year at Tulsa, we actually ran the football more than anybody in the country but two teams,” Navy and Air Force.
Tulsa, where Malzahn was offensive coordinator the past two years, ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 268 yards per game last season.
Auburn has the kind of personnel to be a run-heavy team. In addition to McCalebb, there is senior Ben Tate, who rushed for 664 yards last year, and junior Mario Fannin, who actually had no carries last week but caught eight passes for 82 yards.
The Tigers run behind an offensive line whose starters average 6 feet, 5 inches and 300 pounds.
“They come off the ball real hard,” MSU linebacker K.J. Wright said. “They do a lot of double-teaming, so we talked to our d-linemen, we told them to expect that and don’t get pushed back and get the penetration. The linebackers, we’re just going to run around them.”
Wright said he expects State’s defense to blitz more this week than it did in a 45-7 win over Jackson State.
They’d better keep an eye on junior Kodi Burns, a quarterback turned receiver who lines up in Malzahn’s Wildcat formation. He had only 23 rushing yards last week but scored a touchdown. He will also line up at receiver and is a threat to throw the ball.
“He understands defenses, understands our system,” Malzahn said.
The more players like that Auburn gets, the better its offense will look.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal