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September 3, 2013

VIDEO: Gus Malzahn says Tigers have ‘got a lot of work to do’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn spoke to reporters for more than 15 minutes during his weekly Tuesday morning press conference.

For your viewing pleasure, press conference has been broken into two segments.

Malzahn, Part I

Malzahn, Part II

 

ODDS AND ENDS: Notes and quotes from Gus Malzahn’s Tuesday press conference

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Defensive end Dee Ford (left knee injury) and “Star” Justin Garrett (left foot sprain), who both sat out against Washington State, were back at practice Monday. Naturally, it led to questions about their availability for this Saturday’s game.

Gus Malzahn kept his comments curt on the matter.

Senior defensive Dee Ford missed Auburn's season opener against Washington State with a left knee injury. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was back at practice Monday, but was unsure whether the senior would be able to play this Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior defensive Dee Ford missed Auburn’s season opener against Washington State with a left knee injury. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was back at practice Monday, but was unsure whether the senior would be able to play this Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

“We’re hoping,” Auburn’s head coach said.

The status of Jeff Whitaker isn’t as murky.

He’ll be out for an extended period of time after injuring his right knee and undergoing surgery last week. The senior defensive tackle was seen on crutches prior to kickoff last Saturday. At this point, Malzahn said Whitaker is week-to-week.

Contingent upon how much time he misses, Malzahn said pursuing a medical redshirt was a definite possibility.

“Hopefully we can get him back sooner rather than later but if that does happen, we’ll have that conversation,” he said. “We’ve not had that conversation yet. Jeff is a leader on our team, if not the leader, and he’s very important to us as a whole.”

Linebackers’ lack of influence doesn’t faze Malzahn

Auburn’s linebackers had a rough go of it versus Washington State – and that’s putting it lightly. The unit had only five total tackles, with four from Kris Frost and one courtesy of Cassanova McKinzy. Malzahn wasn’t worried, however.

He said it was more a function of the Cougars’ pass-happy offense than anything the linebackers did wrong.

“Sometimes when teams pass the ball as much as they did, it takes the linebackers kind of out of the game,” he said. “I think we’ll learn more as we go, the more we face running teams.”

MORE MALZAHN QUOTES

On the victory over Washington State:

“It was a big win for us. I’m really proud of our guys. They found a way to win. My biggest question was how were we going to deal with adversity, and we had quite a bit of it on both sides of the football, but they overcame it. Also, it gave us a chance to see where we’re at as a team, and that was a big question for me going into this game and our coaches. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we know that and our players know that. But the good thing is most of the things that we saw are correctable. We’re playing a bunch of young, inexperienced guys, and they’ll have a chance to improve. I’ve been saying our goal is real simple: It’s to improve each practice and each game, and so we’re going to hold true to that, and I believe we definitely can do that.”

On watching the film from the game:

“The thing about an offense is all 11 guys have to be doing their job or it gets pretty ugly. Most of our plays that we didn’t execute, it was one or two guys, but it still makes everything look really bad. I believe we’ll have a chance to get better and improve in that area.

“Defensively, it’s kind of the same thing. One or two mistakes makes you look different, too. But I’m going to tell you this: A lot of that first game was about evaluation for us. We learned a lot about our players. We thought we had ideas about certain things, and some things were exactly what we thought and some things were a little bit different.”

On how much of the Tigers’ offensive playbook was used last Saturday:

“My big thing is you’ve got to be able to adjust in first games, because you think you know how they’re going to play and then you get out there and it’s usually a little bit different. We’re just not to that point where we can have our whole playbook to adjust. We’ll get there. But we’ve got a plan, you take it in and you have tweaks off of it, but each week we’ll add more stuff and get more comfortable.”

On players that impressed him in the season opener:

Montravius (Adams) was one of them, there’s no doubt. Our secondary overall really played well. They played specifically man in the second half against some pretty good receivers, and I thought they did a good job. Trovon Reed probably graded out as high as anybody did. Didn’t have a whole lot of snaps, but he’ll have more. He did a lot of things right.”

On developing a “go-to” receiver:

We still haven’t found him, I’ll tell you that. Hopefully here in the next game or two, everything will come to light. At the same time, a lot of them weren’t given a whole lot of chances, so we need to give them a few more chances. Then I think we’ll figure out who that guy is.”

On his heated exchange with receiver Ricardo Louis on the sideline last week:

“I did? I chewed a lot of people out.”

On Tre Mason’s fumble late in the fourth quarter:

“That was a big turnover. That was a very critical play. As a coach, sometimes you just get a feel and when you’re trying to build a program, there’s certain things that as a coach you just use your instincts and you try to give a guy like that an opportunity. I know a lot about Tre from the fact that I coached him before. He’s a competitor. He was disappointed. I wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself. He did that. I think that’ll help us moving forward.”

On the possibility of running the Wildcat with Cameron Artis-Payne:

“He’s a big, strong back. He can find ways to get yards, maybe when everything’s not perfect. The Wildcat’s pretty unique because you put a guy back there and there’s a good chance you’re going to run it and he’s got some playmaking ability.”

Auburn football: Gus Malzahn defends Nick Marshall’s passing, says offense’s performance was ‘below average’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn didn’t think Nick Marshall played too well last Saturday.

But he didn’t believe his first-time signal-caller was terrible, either. As most things in life are, it was somewhere in the middle.

Auburn quarterback finished with just 99 passing and no touchdowns on Saturday, completing 10 of his 19 attempts. Gus Malzahn defended his signal-caller on Tuesday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Auburn quarterback finished with just 99 passing yards and no touchdowns on Saturday, completing 10 of his 19 attempts. Gus Malzahn defended his signal-caller on Tuesday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

With the benefit of going back and watching film, Auburn’s head coach had a fuller perspective on Marshall’s first start as a Tiger.

“It (was) pretty average,” Malzahn said. “Our expectations, you know, he’s only been here four weeks  but still our expectations are high. The No. 1 thing he did was protect the football, and that can’t go overlooked.”

Malzahn didn’t dispute Marshall had to battle his nerves for the early portion of the season-opening contest against Washington State. No, he didn’t make the right decision every time,  noting Marshall’s “eyes wandered in other places” on certain instances. The coach believed Marshall eventually steadied himself, though.

“He had jitters, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “And that’s to be expected, to come in and play quarterback and everything. He started settling down toward the end of the game and that will help him moving forward.”

While he may have established a rhythm as the offense’s leader by game’s end, one area where Marshall seemed to misfire time and again was on deep passes, overthrowing multiple open receivers. Malzahn said not every incompletion could be laid at the feet of his quarterback.

“The first one they actually had us covered and I think he was just throwing the ball away. It may have looked like he overthrew, but he’s really throwing the ball away,” Malzahn said. “I thought that was a good play at the time. The one to Ricardo (Louis) was very close. It’s within a couple of inches there. He throws the deep ball extremely well and I think the more that he does it, the better he’ll get. The intermediate passes (that require) touch, that’ll come as we go too.”

To render a verdict on Marshall’s career after one game would be a mistake, Malzahn said, since the coaching staff is still gathering information about the quarterback as much as he is memorizing the playbook.

“We’re learning Nick as we go, too,” Malzahn said. “We’re learning what he’s comfortable with, what he’s not comfortable with, how he reacts in certain situations. With each game, our comfort zone will get better and better.”

Malzahn took umbrage with people who wanted to point to Marshall’s passing stats and cite that as proof of a poor performance. Leaping to his quarterback’s defense, Malzahn said the only number that mattered was Marshall’s record standing at 1-0.

“Here’s the thing about a quarterback,” he said. “They usually get too much credit and they usually get too much blame. In our offense that holds true just about every week. The people around them have to be in the right spot and execute. It all works together. It’s a whole.”

And the sum of its parts was far from a well-oiled machine last week. After breaking down and grading the offense, Malzahn said it worse than he initially believed.

“It was below average now that I watched the film,” he said. “Like I said, (the mistakes are) correctable and we got to execute. We got to do what we’re supposed to do and it takes all 11 and that’s not easy. But it’s not easy to win either.”

September 2, 2013

Auburn football: Despite three interceptions in opener, Tigers’ secondary far from satisfied

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Football isn’t a game that lends itself to correcting failures overnight.

Auburn's Robenson Therezie (left) celebrated with running back Tre Mason (right) following the Tigers' victory on Saturday. But Auburn's secondary wasn't pleased snagging only three interceptions on Saturday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Auburn’s Robenson Therezie (left) celebrated with running back Tre Mason (right) following the Tigers’ victory on Saturday. But Auburn’s secondary wasn’t pleased snagging only three interceptions on Saturday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Normally, it’s a process, taking multiple games — if not a whole season — before one can fairly judge a team’s merit in any single area.

Consider Auburn’s secondary an exception, then.

The Tigers’ defensive backs heard about their paltry 2012 interception total (one) nearly every day of the offseason. That single pickoff came from safety Trent Fisher, who returned it for a touchdown in Auburn’s effortless 51-7 victory against Alabama A&M. The Tigers had only one other interception last season, courtesy of linebacker Daren Bates.

Auburn’s secondary showed how last year was where it should be in its season opener on Saturday: in the past.

Auburn came up with three interceptions against Washington State signal-caller Connor Halliday, eclipsing last year’s total in the span of a single contest.

The sterling performance served dual purposes: It was a weight lifted off the shoulders of the entire unit as much as a needed shot in the arm.

“It was great,” said safety Josh Holsey, who had one of the three thefts. “It makes us feel more comfortable about ourselves and it lets other team know you can’t just come over here and toss the ball around on us.”

The sophomore then explained how the play unfolded from his vantage point.

“I tried to go get it as high as I could,” he said. “I really didn’t think (Halliday) was going to throw it because I was right there. When I saw it, I just ran up and tried to get it at its highest point.”

Holsey’s one interception was doubled by Robenson Therezie, who picked off a pair of passes, both at crucial times for the Tigers. His good work didn’t go unrecognized, as the SEC named him the league’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

And to think he accomplished the feat in his first start as a collegian.

Despite being asked to replace A-Day MVP Justin Garrett at the the Tigers’ hybrid “Star” position, Therezie didn’t blink.

In fact, he said didn’t even think about it.

“Oh, I didn’t feel the pressure at all,” he said. “I knew we had to execute. We have really good backups, and I just wanted to stay in the game. It was my first start, ever, in college football, and I just wanted to stay on the field.”

On his first pilfer and Auburn trailing 7-0, Therezie grabbed a tipped pass at the Tigers’ 48-yard line and returned it to the Cougars’ 28-yard line. Four plays later, Auburn was in the end zone for the first time in 2013.

His second interception was even more critical. With the Cougars just eight yards away from the end zone and down 31-24 with 4:57 to go in the final quarter, Halliday threw a fade route toward the right corner of the end zone. It never made it to his intended receiver, as Therezie jumped up and snatched the ball out of the air, dashing Washington State’s last scoring threat in the process.

Head coach Gus Malzahn was visibly pleased with Therezie, highlighting the Fairburn native’s effort in his postgame press conference.

“He played really good,” Malzahn said. “He played a lot of snaps out there and he was tired but he found a way, especially with that one in the end zone late.”

Once a team tastes success, though, greed tends to set in.

That’s why the Tigers couldn’t care less about the three interceptions they collected.

Instead, disappointment reigned supreme.

“They’re in the frame of mind now they’re not frustrated that they didn’t get any,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re frustrated that they didn’t get more, which is the way you want it.”

September 1, 2013

First take: A quick look at Arkansas State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Arkansas State (1-0; beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff 62-11 on Saturday) at Auburn (1-0; beat Washington State 31-24 on Saturday)

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ETArkansas_State_Red_Wolves2

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: FSN

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 2-0

When last they met: Auburn began its 2010 campaign season with an easy 52-26 victory over Arkansas State. It marked the first game with Cam Newton at quarterback for the Tigers, and he provided a glimpse of what was in store for the remainder of the season — making the spectacular look routine. The dynamic Atlanta native threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns, completing 9 of 14 through the air. He didn’t look bad carrying the ball, either, rushing for 171 yards and two scores on 15 carries. Freshman running back Michael Dyer tacked on another rushing touchdown and totaled 95 yards on the ground, while Quindarius Carr collected two receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Red Wolves were able to move the ball against the Tigers’ defense, especially through the air, as quarterback Ryan Aplin rang up 278 yards and a touchdown. And the Red Wolves were able to put some points on the board — 26 in all. Then again, it doesn’t mean much when your opponent’s score doubles that.

Quick facts on Arkansas State: Bryan Harsin is the third head coach the Red Wolves have had in as many seasons. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze led the team in 2011 and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was at the helm last year. … Arkansas State snapped a three-game losing streak in season openers with its 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday. … The Red Wolves tied a Division I record in Saturday’s victory, as it had four players — David Oku, Sirgregory Thornton, Michael Gordon and sophomore Fredi Knighten — rush for more than 100 yards. In sum, Arkansas State tallied 509 rushing yards, the fifth time in school history it broke the 500-yard barrier on the ground. … The Red Wolves are one of 16 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to win at least 20 games over the past two seasons. They are also the two-time defending champions of the Sun Belt Conference.

Which Tiger is primed for a big performance: The Red Wolves don’t have any glaring weaknesses defensive, with a stout defensive line led by sleeper All-American candidate Ryan Carrethers and a secondary that returns players who multiple games at both corner and safety positions. The one question mark is at a pair of its linebacker positions alongside Quashaun Lee. So look one of the Tigers’ trio of running backs — Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant — to see if they can put pressure on the back end of the Red Wolves’ untested front seven.

Which Red Wolf could give the home team fits: After Auburn allowed 344 passing yards to Washington State, Red Wolves wide receiver (and Phenix City native) J.D. McKissic could be a thorn in the Tigers’ side this Saturday. He had a fantastic season last year, winning the Sun Belt Conference’s Freshman of the Year award after catching 103 passes for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns.

Extra point: Two of Division I’s five active coaches who haven’t been part of a losing season as a head coach or full-time assistant (minimum three years of experience) will stand across the sidelines from one another this Saturday in Malzahn and Harsin. The other three? Southern California’s Lane Kiffin, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen.

Auburn football: Postgame Quote Roundup

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — As promised, here are postgame coaches from both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn along with assorted players.

Note: These quotes are a collection of quotes from my own interviews as ones sent out by Auburn’s media relations department. This isn’t everything, but I’m not sure a post of (a guesstimated) 4,000 words would get read all the way through. So consider this an “abridged” compilation.

Malzahn

Opening Statement

“First of all I’m very proud of our team, they found a way to win. I’ve been preaching really since we’ve been here how we’re going to handle adversity and we’re going to stick together. I really feel like there was a lot of adversity out there, we made a lot of mistakes, some of them critical, but our guys found a way to overcome them. I’m very proud of our defense. They got us three turnovers and had two fourth down stops late especially after the offense turned the ball over you know late in the game. Special teams I thought played well. We had the big kick return to give us back momentum, but overall I’m very pleased with our team, they found a way to win. We talked about our goals, we’re getting better after each practice and getting better each game, we’ve got a lot of work to do but we’re committed to doing that.”

On the defense:

“They did a very good job adjusting. Our defensive coaches did a great job adjusting. I’m telling you that’s a pretty good football team, they had most of their guys back from last year. They got their coaching staff back, one of the better offensive coaches in all of college football, so our defense did very good with adjustments.”

On Robenson Therezie:

“He played really good. He played a lot of snaps out there and he was tired but he found a way, especially with that one in the endzone late, it was one of the critical plays of the game.”

On Justin Garrett:

“You know it’s kind of been one of those things where it was a game-time decision. We decided to hold him out, but Therezie came through and played well. “

On Montravius Adams:

“I’ll tell you what, Montravius is a big athlete, but he’ll improve each game and you know freshmen, what usually happens is they’ll improve each game.”

On Nick Marshall:

“You know, there were a couple things communication wise we’ll get better on but overall I liked the way he handled himself; he protected the football and that’s hard to do. They were showing him a lot of different looks and trying to disguise some things but he protected the football.”

On Marshall’s nerves in the first quarter:

“Yeah I would say so, that’s expected. I think a lot of our guys had jitters starting out and he calmed down after the first series or two. I think we had some drops early that probably didn’t help either, but he settled down and I think the game settled down for him.”

On Corey Grant:

“Corey can really run and I think everybody saw that today. He’s got speed that’s comparable to Onterio McCalebb and we just need to find ways to get him the ball.”

On possibly challenging Jonathon Mincy’s interception:

“I thought about that, it was close. You know a challenge —you usually want to make sure that I’m pretty sure and I wasn’t pretty sure, it was a bang bang deal. I know they review everything upstairs, but there was a little bit of talk and I decided not to challenge it.”

On overthrown passes:

“Sometimes it takes a while when you’ve got a quarterback for four weeks trying to get timing with everything; they should get better as we come. I thought there was one that was close —I didn’t really get a great look at but the one in the endzone, it was close. We’ll just keep working.”

On his message at halftime:

“Well you know in the second quarter I think at one point we ran only about four plays. I think there was about four or five minutes left, but we had ideas and, like I said, we didn’t want to put him in a bad situation tonight. We wanted to try and protect him and learn more about him. Just to be completely honest we learned a whole lot about our team. I told our team before ‘hey we want to know where we’re at’ and obviously I think you all saw we made some mistakes, but the good thing is most of them are correctable.”

On defending Washington State’s offense:

“I would say average. I think our execution was average at best. You’ve got to give them credit, they had a good scheme and they’ve got some good players, but our execution was average at best.”

On using the entire playbook:

“We had a plan coming in, a specific plan we tried to stick to it.”

On Tre Mason at the end of the game:

“Yeah, he fumbled the football, but Tre is a veteran guy and I just told him we’re going to give you the ball back and get confidence in you and we gave it to him and he finished the game out.”

On Montravius Adams:

“Yeah, he was in the backfield a lot. He was in the quarterback’s face a lot, there wasn’t a whole lot of that, but he was definitely one of the guys that was.”

On Jeff Whitaker not playing

“Jeff’s going to be out for a while. He had a procedure done last week and so he wasn’t able to play and we’ll see when he gets back.”

On winning:

“I’m just so proud of our guys. You know they went through a storm last year and they really bought in with what our coaches have asked us to do. This is kind of one of those moments that you’re very happy for them. I’m very happy for our coaches and really our Auburn fans. Our fans deserve to win and we have a chance to get better I mean we’re not there. I think everybody knows that, but we have a chance to get better and I’m really enjoying coaching these guys.”

On the two-point conversion:

“You have certain plays and you run them or you don’t. We just try to put pressure on the defense as much as we can. I thought it was a pretty good momentum builder there, at least early in the game.”

On possibly running an onside kick:

“You know we thought about all kinds of stuff. We didn’t actually call it in the game, but we thought about it and talked about it.

On not going for it on fourth down:

“There was a lot of talk and if I knew more about our guys I may have gone for it. I just felt at that time in the game — you know we’re learning. I learn about our guys at practice and every game, but you learn more in games and so in the future if there’s a high percentage of us getting it, we’ll do it. I wanted to but didn’t feel like I could pull the trigger right there at that time in the game. It’s very hard but we’ve got a good punter, a very good punter, one of the very best in the country but the timing wasn’t right.”

On whether anything surprised him:

“No not really, my big deal was adversity and my head was on a swivel. I wanted to see how we handled it, that was my big question but I didn’t see heads down and all that pouting. I saw some bright eyes, I saw our guys hustling on and off the field no matter what the score was and I’m proud of our guys for that.”

On freshman defensive linemen:

“I think they gave us some energy, I think you saw we were rotating a lot of defensive linemen in, and all of them played and all of them played significantly. I mean they are good protecting and that quarterback is a very solid guy.”

On defensive interceptions:

“Well they found a way to win. You know I felt like our defensive players, secondary made some really good plays at critical times and I think offense was a little bit hit and miss, but we made some plays when we had to and there’s a couple we’d like to have back. I mean the reverse pass and some thinks like that, pass protection broke down, but you know I think we’ll have a chance to be solid in both areas if we keep improving.”

On Marshall at halftime:

“Nick’s a calm guy; he didn’t say much. He’s just real calm and he was wanting to know where the adjustments were and you know he really handled himself well.”

On this game benefiting team film

“Oh there’s no doubt. You could take the first half and there’s all kinds of things we can teach — the second half too, at the end of the game, and everything that went down to the end.”

On celebrating his first win:

“I think you can be very proud of our team. I hope our team really is able to enjoy their night, they’ve earned it, but then we move on to next week. The challenge is getting better and correcting the mistakes, getting better in all phases.”

On Arkansas State’s offense:

“You know they’re a very good team; we’ll have to play better than we did tonight. They’re a very good team and I know they will be very well prepared.”

Nick Marshall

On his nerves:

I was kind of nervous on the first drive. But then after the first drive I started getting comfortable.

On halftime adjustments

“We had a game plan coming into the game, so at halftime we didn’t really make that many adjustments. We just stuck to our game plan.”

On his overthrown passes:

“They were) mistakes. but they can be corrected.”

On whether it was timing issues:

It wasn’t timing. I just put too much on them.

On his second half performance:

“I did well. I did protect the ball, and that’s really what the game is about – protecting the ball and (commit) no turnovers. So I thought I did great in the second half.”

On what Malzahn said to the team at halftime: 

“He really just told us to keep doing what we’re doing and stick to our game plan. We weren’t really worried about throwing the ball much. Just stick to the game plan and try to get the victory.”

On whether anything WSU’s defense did surprised him:

“Yeah, Washington State is a good team. They were flying around the ball. They made plays, so it was great to come out with a win.”

On whether the game slowed down for him:

“It has slowed down for everybody. I think (after) halftime it slowed down and I felt more comfortable after that.”

On things to improve upon next week:

“Not too much. Just get better. Me and my team just go out there and get better.”

 On returning to the SEC:

“It means a lot. The SEC is the highest competition level, and that’s what I (consider) myself. … I just like being in the SEC.”

On Corey Grant’s speed:

“Yeah, he showed (his speed) off. He came in with his head on straight and ready to play. He made plays on his feet, too. He can run.”

On the defense:

“The defense stepped up big for us tonight and we didn’t have any turnovers, but the defense went out there and balled out today and got us turnovers. It allowed (the offense) to execute.”

On committing no turnovers:

“Coach Malzahn told me before the game started just to protect the ball and I did that to (the) best (of my ability).”

On which overthrow hurt the most:

” The one I threw to Ricardo. I overthrew him just a little bit.”

On what grade he would give himself:

“I’d say like a B-minus. I did good,  but I know I can get better each day.”

Cornerback Chris Davis

On the importance of getting a hand on the ball:

“It’s very, very important. Everybody knows last year in the secondary we only had one interception and we started out this game with three. That’s huge and hopefully they’ll keep coming.”

On his pass breakup on in the fourth quarter:

That was a good play. I think it was a momentum-builder to put the game away and let our offense milk the clock some.

On returning punts:

“That’s what I’ve been waiting on.”

On what he thinks about punt returns thus far:

“I’m enjoying it pretty well. I’m trying to do whatever to help the team win.”

On him being ‘fearless’ when returning the ball:

You’ve got to be.”

On whether he wished he had returned punts earlier in his Auburn career:

“In high school, I was an athlete, and coming here that was one thing I wanted to do: I wanted to return punts and kicks. I just thank Coach (Malzahn) for giving me the opportunity to do that.”

On his mind-set on punt returns:

“When the ball is punted, I just look down the field at the coverage and see if anybody left their man free and see how much room I’ve got if I catch the ball or if I need to fair catch it. And Quan (Bray) actually told me, ‘Be aggressive with the punt returns’ and that’s what I went out and did.”

On the difference between the first and second half for the defense:

“We just stayed together as a defense. Coach Malzahn always says, ‘Take it one play at a time’ and that’s what we tried to do. He tells us how we’re going to act when adversity kicks in. Me being the senior, I just tried to walk up and down the sideline to motivate the team.”

On what he attributes his personal improvements to:

“I’m having fun. I’m having fun again playing football.”

On whether it’s frustrating to face an offense like Washington State:

“It’s not, because going into the game, Coach (Malzahn) told us they were going to complete a couple of passes. You’ve just got to have a ‘next play’ mentality and that’s what we did.”

VIDEO: Postgame reaction from Auburn’s players

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Due to some technical difficulties with my flip camera — which I won’t detail here — we sadly have no video of Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s postgame press conference with media members.

Let’s look on the bright side, though: He didn’t say anything particularly interesting, which you’ll see when I post my “quote roundup” later. I know that might not suffice for some, but that’s how it is.

Not to worry, since we still recorded video of five different players, consisting of quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Tre Mason, wide receiver Sammie Coates, “Star” Robenson Therezie and cornerback Chris Davis.

Marshall

Mason

Coates

Therezie

Davis

August 31, 2013

Auburn ekes out 31-24 win over Washington State in season opener

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. Auburn’s season opener against Washington State on Saturday was in doubt until nearly the final minute.

But when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday’s fourth-and-five pass from Auburn’s 27-yard line sailed out of bounds with just over two minutes remaining, the outcome was sealed.

Gus Malzahn was able to celebrate in his first game as Auburn's head coach, as the Tigers pulled out a 31-24 win over the Washington State Cougars. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Gus Malzahn was able to celebrate following his first game as Auburn’s head coach, as the Tigers pulled out a 31-24 win over the Washington State Cougars on Saturday night.
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

The Tigers (1-0) had done just enough to hold on for a 31-24 victory to make Gus Malzahn’s debut as head coach a successful one.

“They found a way to win,” Malzahn said in his postgame press conference. “We’re committed to getting better each practice and each game, and we are.”

To say the contest went according to script would be a bit too easy, though.

The pregame thought was the Tigers would pound the ball on the ground while the Cougars would take to the air, each following their coach’s preferred method of moving the ball.

On Saturday, Malzahn’s scheme reigned supreme, as the Tigers’ 297 rushing yards proved to be more effective than the Cougars’ 344 passing yards. In an ironic twist, however, Washington State matched Auburn in terms of rushing touchdowns, with each team scoring twice via the running game.

And though the teams combined to put 55 points on the board, the second half was notable for its paucity of scoring. The final two quarters saw just nine points scored, all coming courtesy of each team’s placekickers.

The pedestrian pace of the second half scoring was a far cry from the frenetic tempo of the opening 30 minutes.

“Our coaches did a good job of adjusting,” Malzahn said. “But give (Washington State) credit. That’s a really good team.”

Things couldn’t have started much worse for the Tigers. Washington State (0-1) received to open the game, and promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. The Cougars covered the 75 yards in 12 plays, capped by Jeremiah Laufasa’s touchdown run from four yards out.

Auburn failed to match Washington State on its own opening drive, as the Tigers went three-and-out. The Tigers next possession was equally unfruitful, picking up just five yards before punting once more.

Needing a spark, a “Star” provided it. Robenson Therezie — pushed into the starting lineup in the place of starter Justin Garrett — came up with an interception on the Cougars’ ensuing drive, helping the Tigers set up shop at the Washington State 24-yard line.

Four plays later, Auburn had its first touchdown of the season, as Tre Mason ran up the middle for eight yards, dragging Washington State defenders along with him into the end zone.

But the Tigers didn’t settle for just getting an extra point: Malzahn wanted more — and the Tigers got it. Senior defensive back Ryan White ran it in for a two-point conversion to put Auburn ahead 8-7 at the 2:26 mark of the opening period.

As soon as the second quarter began, the game finally started to resemble the quick-strike scoring attacks both coaches desire. The lead changed hands four times, with two Tiger touchdowns covering 50 yards or more.

The first score went for double that, as Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards, the second such touchdown of his career and first since he had a 97-yard touchdown return against Utah State in the 2011 season opener.

Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard touchdown run later in the quarter, which was the first of his career.

August 30, 2013

Auburn football: Two ‘different flavors’ of spread offense to clash when Tigers face Cougars on Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

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AUBURN, Ala.Ellis Johnson has seen nearly every type of offense imaginable in his 30-plus years of coaching.

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn's run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

No system is an island. When coaches see something they like, they borrow the concepts to incorporate it into their own scheme. Because of that, Auburn’s defensive coordinator didn’t have a problem with people who want to label both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s and Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s systems as “spread” attacks despite their differing ideologies.

“The spread to me is three or four wide receivers on the field at one time and tempo,” Johnson said. “There are all different flavors. (Leach) wants to throw the ball more; Gus wants to run the ball more. What we’ve practiced against with our own offense in some respects will prepare us very well for what we’re going to see.”

Johnson said the Tigers will probably end up playing “two or three teams” this season that share some similarities with the Cougars. No team is as heavily reliant on the passing game as the Cougars, though. In 12 games last season, Washington State attempted 624 passes, which translates to exactly 52 per contest.

“There’s no question about it — he loves to throw the football,” Johnson said of Leach. “If you allow him to establish the running back, you’re in for a long day. You can’t just take a pass-defense approach and forget about the run. They have an offensive line that’s greatly improved. They’re good players. I think their running game is going to be more effect this year. It’s something you can’t ignore.”

It won’t be the first time Leach and Johnson have squared off. In 1997, Leach was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky while Johnson served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. That year, the Wildcats defeated the Crimson Tide 40-34 in overtime, Kentucky’s first victory in the series since 1922.

Over time, Johnson has seen how Leach’s scheme has evolved.

“They ran a lot more two-back (formations) back then,” he said. “Just as wide open, a lot of screens, a lot of scatting the backs, free releasing them. They can line up in two-back or one-back, and by the snap of the ball, it’s almost an empty set. They’re checking out of there.”

On that same token, though, Washington State will have to contend with Auburn’s running game, which boasts a plethora of options in the backfield. Ironically, Leach said he was more worried when the Tigers take to the air given what he’s seen from quarterback Nick Marshall.

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically),” Leach said. “He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy. … He’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

Defensively, the Cougars will run out of multiple fronts and myriad coverages, so much so that Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn’t sure what to expect Saturday.

“It’s the first game,” he said. “You’re not real sure what the other team is going to do. We’ve got to be ready for whatever they throw at us and anything they could do. With us starting a new quarterback, you’d expect that. With them having (so many starters) back on the same defense with the same coordinator, I think they’d have the full arsenal of tactics that we’ve seen from them in the past.”

And their 3-9 record didn’t belie how competitive the Cougars were last season, Malzahn said. During film study, he saw how Washington State played Oregon, which ended the year ranked No. 2, to a near-draw in the first half before the Ducks pulled away for a 51-26 victory. The Cougars were even closer against Stanford, losing 24-17 to a Cardinals team that finished No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll last year.

“They’re capable, even last year, of playing good football,” Malzahn said. “I think sometimes they got behind and it kind of snowballed on them, but we’re really expecting a much-improved team.”

One thing is certain: Both teams are committed to snapping the ball as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Malzahn wouldn’t rule out possibly slowing things down if needed.

That would be the option of last resort, though.

“It just depends on what gives you the best chance of winning,” he said. “We’ll see how it unfolds.”

THE WAIT IS OVER: Predictions on games around the country this weekend

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Everyone likes making predictions.

You do. I do. It’s a fun diversion, especially when you don’t have to worry about losing any money on the outcome of the games. (Well, at least I don’t.) Each Friday afternoon, I’ll make my picks on 15 different games around the country, with scores included for each one. And yes, I’ll even pick Auburn’s game every week, too. (I’m already preparing myself for derision the first time I pick against the Tigers. Such is life.)Auburn Spring Football

Now, to the picks. (Please note that all times listed are Eastern. Thanks in advance.)

Strictly SEC

Toledo at No. 10 Florida, 12:21 p.m.

This game might sound like an easy win for the Gators on paper, but don’t underestimate the Rockets. They return three big-time playmakers in running back David Fluellen, receiver Bernard Reedy and quarterback Terrance Owens. Fluellen is undoubtedly the top threat after rushing for 1,498 yards last season. And be aware Florida will also have five starters missing from the game due to injury, with right tackle Chaz Green and right guard Jon Halapio gone as well as running back Matt Jones. Those losses don’t help a unit already lacking much of a punch.

Florida will be fortunate to escape by the skin of its teeth.

Black picks: Gators 24, Rockets 21

Rice at No. 7 Texas A&M, 1 p.m.

Most years, this game would draw little attention. Then Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel went and won himself a Heisman last year. Throw in all of his off-the-field issues since the end of last season — and the fact he’ll be sitting out the first half of this game due to “secondary violations” of the NCAA rules on allowing an athlete’s likeness to be used for commercial purposes — and anyone who calls themselves a college football fan will be following the happenings in College Station closely. Has the second half of a regular season game ever been more anticipated?

It might not be competitive, but it will be compelling.

Black picks: Aggies 52, Owls 10

Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Oklahoma State (at Reliant Stadium in Houston), 3:30 p.m.

The Bulldogs’ top three pass-catchers from last season are gone. That’s not good news knowing that you normally have to score points in bunches to beat the Pokes.

Black picks: Cowboys 41, Bulldogs 20

Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas, 4 p.m.

“Real American football” gets off to a good start in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday afternoon, but the Ragin’ Cajuns will make them work for it until midway through the fourth quarter.

Black picks: Razorbacks 34, Ragin’ Cajuns 24

Virginia Tech vs. No. 1 Alabama (at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), 5:30 p.m.

These ain’t your grandfather’s (or your father’s) Hokies. Virginia Tech isn’t ranked and is coming off a lackluster 7-6 showing last season. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, resemble the program people would recall during the halcyon days of Bear Bryant, which is bad news for Frank Beamer’s crew in this contest. Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler — who, you might remember, held the same position at Auburn last year — will once again “match wits” against Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.

This won’t end well.

Black picks: Crimson Tide 41, Hokies 10

Austin Peay at Tennessee, 6 p.m.

The Volunteers help Butch Jones begin his tenure at Tennessee with a ‘W.’ It only gets tougher from here, though, as they’ll have faced Florida and Oregon (on the road in both) before September is over.

Black picks: Volunteers 38, Governors 14

Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky (at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.), 7 p.m.

My head is urging me not to pick against Bobby Petrino. But something tells me that somehow, someway, first-year coach Mark Stoops isn’t going to let the Wildcats lose this game. And for his sake, the result better not be a one-sided loss, lest he wants to hear from a fan base that will wonder why the Wildcats didn’t give Petrino — a former Louisville coach who tortured Kentucky during his time there — a chance to run their program since he was in the market for a job during the offseason.

Black picks: Wildcats 42, Hilltoppers 38

Murray State at Missouri, 7 p.m.

After an injury-plagued 2012 season, Tigers quarterback James Franklin gets back on the right track with this layup game in the season opener. Here’s another mini-prediction: Dorial Beckham-Green goes for 200-plus receiving yards and two touchdowns in this one.

Black picks: Tigers 55, Racers 14

No. 20 TCU vs. No. 12 LSU (at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas), 9 p.m.

Both teams have question marks on offense. For LSU, it’s whether running back Jeremy Hill will start after being reinstated to the team during the offseason — or will he play at all? Tigers head coach Les Miles has played coy all week. TCU still hasn’t announced which quarterback — senior Casey Pachall or sophomore Trevone Boykin — will take the field with the first-team unit. These schools have always been known for their defenses, and it should be no different this year, even with LSU losing eight defenders to the NFL after last season.

It should be a good one, but when in doubt, go with the SEC team. (It usually pays off, after all.)

Black picks: Tigers 31, Horned Frogs 20

Other National Games of Some Renown

Louisiana-Monroe at Oklahoma, 7 p.m.

As many recall, the Warhawks came within a whisker of starting 3-0 last season, dropping Arkansas in the season opener and suffering close losses to Auburn (in overtime) and Baylor (which won 47-42). They’ll push the Sooners for a half or so in this one, but “Big Game Bob” Stoops normally takes care of business in regular season games at home, posting an incredible 81-5  (94.2 percent) record since taking over in 1999.

Black picks: Sooners 52, Warhawks 24

No. 19 Boise State at Washington, 10 p.m.

Isn’t absence supposed to make the heart grow fonder? Heck, these two teams closed last season against each other in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas, with the Broncos coming out on top 28-26. Obviously, Boise State head coach Chris Petersen’s record (84-8 in eight seasons) is impossible to knock, but his team isn’t unbeatable. In fact, it lost its opening game last season to Michigan State. It says here that the Huskies, who return 20 starters from 2012, make that to two years in a row.

Black picks: Huskies 38, Broncos 28

No. 22 Northwestern at California, 10:30 p.m.

Sonny Dykes is an offensive whiz, as he proved last year when his Louisiana Tech squad led the nation in scoring at 51.5 points per game. In the wide-open, pass-happy Pac-12, he’s the perfect fit to turn the Golden Bears around. It just won’t happen against Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is 7-0 in season openers. This should be a whale of game, but the bigger question is this: Will you stay up to watch it?

Black picks: Wildcats 30, Golden Bears 27

No. 11 Florida State at Pittsburgh (Monday), 8 p.m.

Mark it down: Hueytown, Ala., native (and new Seminoles signal-caller) Jameis Winston will make a few highlight reel plays on Monday en route to leading Florida State to a season-opening victory on the road.

Black picks: Seminoles 31, Panthers 10

The Game You Really Care About

Washington State at Auburn, 7 p.m.

For those who joined the live chat on Thursday, this pick won’t come as a surprise: I predicted the Tigers will win by two touchdowns in Gus Malzahn’s debut as the head coach on the Plains. Yes, the Cougars pass-heavy attack will test a Tigers secondary weakened due to mitigating factors (Jonathan Jones’ injury, Demetruce McNeal’s dismissal). As the game goes on, however, Auburn’s physicality up front will wear its opponent down, creating holes for Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Nick Marshall to gash the Cougars for big plays.

And since everyone always asks about Marshall, I’ll say he ends with just over 300 yards of total offense: 217 passing yards (one touchdown, no interceptions) and 84 rushing yards (one touchdown).

Toomer’s Corner should be rocking.

Black picks: Tigers 31, Cougars 17

GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson, 8 p.m.

I’ve gone back-and-forth on this matchup. The teams are nearly identical: great on offense and mediocre on defense. Points should be aplenty, but I’ll take the Bulldogs in a nail-biter.

(Though if it comes down to a field goal, Georgia will likely be kicking itself — pardon the pun — since starting kicker Marshall Morgan will likely miss the game due to an offseason arrest for boating under the influence. As Steve Spurrier would point out, Morgan kept up a long tradition of Georgia players doing stupid things to get them suspended for early-season games.)

Black’s pick: Bulldogs 45, Tigers 38