War Eagle Extra has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 10 seconds. If not, visit
http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/wareagleextra
and update your bookmarks.

September 3, 2013

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 1, 2013

THE GRADES ARE IN: Assessing Auburn’s 31-24 victory versus Washington State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Some good things happened for Auburn on Saturday night.

Some not-so-good instances occurred, too.

Auburn was able to celebrate a victory in its season opener against Washington State on Saturday night. But how did they fare on Ryan Black's report card?

Auburn’s Robenson Therezie (27), Tre Mason (21) and the rest of the Tigers were able to celebrate a victory after a victory in the season opener against Washington State on Saturday night. But how did they fare on Ryan Black’s report card? (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Irrespective of the final stats or big plays they produced or allowed, the Tigers accomplished their sole objective against Washington State: They won, beating the Cougars 31-24 in the season opener. It was far from easy, though, as the game’s fate hung in the balance deep into the fourth quarter. Auburn was finally able to breath easy when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday misfired on a fourth-and-five attempt from the Tigers’ 27-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, as his pass wasn’t close to any receiver.

Tre Mason took care of the rest. He picked up a pair of first downs to help the Tigers set up a “victory formation” and give head coach Gus Malzahn a win in his first game on the Plains.

So, in the aftermath of Saturday night, we’ll head to the report card.

This will be done every Sunday following Auburn’s game the previous day. You might not agree with the grades, but the comments section is there for a reason.

Let’s begin.

OFFENSE: B-

For those paying close attention, this is the same grade Nick Marshall gave when asked to take stock of his performance on Saturday. First, the good news: The Tigers did as everyone expected, staying committed to the ground game, totaling 297 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Auburn spread the wealth, as four different players — Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne, Mason and Marshall — touched the ball at least nine times. We all knew how deep the backfield was heading into the game, and Saturday provided on-field proof of those preconceived notions.

Now, the bad news. Those who watched the game saw this coming from a mile away, and that is … (Hold on a second. Marshall just overthrew another receiver before I could finish the last sentence.) Joking aside, Auburn’s signal-caller had a solid game, at least in the realm of his decision-making and not turning the ball over. That being said, Marshall had the potential to put together an even better game through the air if he just reined himself in a bit. He overthrew countless open receivers, including three great opportunities to score on the same drive late in the third quarter. The Tigers eventually ended up punting the ball away.

On Saturday, Marshall’s misfires didn’t sink the Tigers’ hopes at victory.

It might not come back to haunt them next week against Arkansas State, either. But the Tigers can’t afford to be one-dimensional when they get into the heart of their SEC schedule and reasonably expect to win.

DEFENSE: B

Yes, the Tigers allowed 464 yards of total offense. And yes, 344 of those yards came through the air. However, they also intercepted the ball three times — one more than they had all of last season — and gave up only one passing touchdown. The reason for this grade, then, is that even though it took the Cougars 35 completions to rack up those 344 yards, they still averaged nearly a first down per completed pass, at 9.8 yards per catch.

Auburn also gave up far more on the ground than anyone would have expected; Washington State averaged right at 29 rushing yards per game last season, the lowest in Division I. Saturday night, the Cougars had nearly 100 yards more than that, finishing with 120. And after scoring only six rushing touchdowns in 12 games last year, Washington State had two against Auburn, matching the Tigers’ own total.

Finally, if not for true freshman Montravius Adams playing well beyond his years, Auburn’s push up front would have been non-existent. Time and again, Halliday was allowed ample time to look downfield and hit open receivers. If the Tigers’ pass-rush doesn’t improve dramatically in the weeks to come, they likely won’t be able to escape with a victory like they did on Saturday.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A+

There is no need for nitpicking here, especially given everything the Tigers did right. To wit: They scored on a 100-yard kickoff return by Mason. Cody Parkey had five touchbacks, with only one returned kick, which was taken back 30 yards. The senior place kicker also went 3-for-4 on his field goal attempts, only missing from 50 yards out. The Tigers also didn’t have a punt return against them. Needless to say, no unit was more stout than special teams Saturday night.

OVERALL: A

There were some tense moments, but those are to be expected. As defensive line coach Rodney Garner would say, football “is a bottom-line business.” The Tigers won Saturday night. Period.

Everything else is meaningless by comparison.

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

Auburn notes: Robenson Therezie plays like a ‘star,’ Montravius Adams impressive in debut

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Robenson Therezie was a late entry into Auburn’s lineup on Saturday, being inserted at the team’s hybrid safety/linebacker position known as the “Star.”

Junior Robenson Therezie had the best game of his career on Saturday, intercepting two passes (one seen above) and tallying seven tackles in Auburn's 31-24 victory over Washington State on Saturday night.

Junior Robenson Therezie had the best game of his career on Saturday, intercepting two passes (one seen above) and tallying seven tackles in Auburn’s 31-24 victory over Washington State on Saturday night. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Therezie then went out and played like one.

He picked off two passes in Auburn’s 31-24 victory on Saturday, becoming the first Tiger since Josh Bynes in 2010 (against Arkansas) to tally two interceptions in a single game. What made the feat even more impressive is that the junior didn’t have an interception to his name prior to kickoff.

And he didn’t just excel in the passing game, also finishing as the Tigers’ second-leading tackler — behind only Jonathon Mincy’s eight takedowns — on Saturday, tallying seven tackles (six solo, one assisted).

Though he was tasked with filling the void left by Justin Garrett — the team’s A-Day MVP — Therezie said he didn’t place any additional expectations on himself to perform.

“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.”

Therezie pilfered his first pass in the opening period off Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, snagging the ball at the Tigers’ 48-yard line and taking it back to the Cougars’ 28-yard line.

The only thing Therezie didn’t do right when recalling the play?

He forgot what number teammate Jake Holland wore.

“I was trying to get to the flats, but No. 2 didn’t spot (it),” he said, though Holland sports jersey No. 5. “It was fast and I ended up right by him and there was a tip ball and I got to it.”

Auburn didn’t let the turnover go to waste, as it scored a touchdown four plays later.

His second interception was perhaps even more important. With 4:57 remaining, the Cougars were on the Tigers’ 8-yard line, looking to score a touchdown to knot the contest at 31-all. Halliday took the snap and fired the ball toward the right corner of the end zone.

Therezie was there, though, making a leaping grab on a pass intended for receiver Ricky Galvin to thwart Washington State’s last scoring opportunity of the game.

The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on the Miami native.

“I had to make a big play there,” he said. “We knew as a defense they were going for the end zone right there and we communicated the right read and I made the play.”

Coming off his best game as a Tiger made Therezie appreciate Saturday even more, especially in the light of his career up to this point, which has seen him shift around from position to position without a real home.

“It was very different. I felt great,” he said. “I felt like I got back to my old self, because I was kind of lost for two years. Now I feel good.”

Adams ‘thankful for the opportunity to make an impact’

Montravius Adams didn’t have an inkling he would be on the field for so many snaps on Saturday.

The true freshman defensive tackle showed out, ending with two tackles (one for loss) and notching the first sack of his career in a pasting of Halliday in the second quarter.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity to make an impact this first game,” he said.

He introduced himself immediately, as the sack was his first play of the game.

“I didn’t want to let the team down,” he said. “At the snap of the ball, my only focus was to push down the quarterback, and I did.”

In a statement that will likely induce headaches for opposing offensive coordinators later this season, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn believes Adams only scratched the surface of his abilities on Saturday.

“Montravius is a big athlete, but he’ll improve each game,” he said.  “You know freshmen — what usually happens is they’ll improve each game.”

A first half full of ‘firsts’

“First” stood for far more than the opening 30 minutes of play at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

It also was a statistical achievement for many of Auburn’s players. Along with Therezie, four other Tigers made their first career start: quarterback Nick Marshall, left guard Alex Kozan and defensive ends Craig Sanders and LaDarius Owens.

Like Therezie, safety Josh Holsey notched his first career interception on Saturday, making a leaping grab of a wayward Halliday pass on the final play of the opening period.

The Tigers’ special teams had its share of firsts as well: Ryan White pulled off a feat that hadn’t occurred for Auburn in seven years in the first quarter, as he scored on a two-point conversion. It was the first time the Tigers had successfully converted a two-point try since doing the same against Alabama in 2006.

Junior Corey Grant scored his first touchdown as a Tiger in emphatic fashion, scampering 75 yards in the second quarter, which gave Auburn a 22-21 lead with 6:18 remaining before halftime.

Injury updates

Malzahn updated the status of both Garrett and defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker in his postgame press conference — to an extent, anyway.

He didn’t get into specifics of either player’s absence, but explained the reasoning that was behind each of them sitting out Saturday.

“You know it’s kind of been one of those things where it was a game-time decision,” Malzahn said of Garrett, who sprained his foot in the Tigers’ second scrimmage of fall camp and was initially expected to play Saturday. “We decided to hold him out, but Therezie came through and played well. ”

While Garrett should be back soon, the same couldn’t be said of Whitaker. The senior from Warner Robins — who was replaced by Gabe Wright in the starting lineup — was seen on crutches prior to kickoff.

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

Quick hits

With the win, Auburn improved to 93-26-2 in season opening games all-time and 96-15-3 in home openers. … The Tigers have now won 78 consecutive games when scoring 30 or more points and 294-4 overall. Auburn’s only loss against a non-SEC foe when scoring 30-plus came in 1979, when it lost to Wake Forest 42-38. …  Washington State scored two rushing touchdowns on Saturday. In 12 games last season, they totaled just six scores on the ground. … Cody Parkey’s 47-yard field goal in the second quarter was a career-long for the senior from Jupiter, Fla. … Auburn’s undefeated 1993 squad was honored in a pregame ceremony as part of its 20-year reunion.

August 31, 2013

Last look: Capsule for Saturday’s game, including key matchups (and edges)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Washington State (3-9 in 2012) at Auburn (3-9 in 2012)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

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

TV: ESPNU

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

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0AU logo

Quick game notes: Auburn has never had a problem holding serve at home to begin the season, owning a 34-6 record all-time in opening games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers have won six home openers in a row, with the last loss coming at the hands of Georgia Tech in 2005. … Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prefers to lean on his running game, and the stats from his stint at Arkansas State last year back him up: The Red Wolves ran the ball 56.7 percent of the time (540 rushing attempts out of 952 total offensive plays). Washington State coach Mike Leach is at the other end of the spectrum, as no team in Division I put the ball in the air more than the Cougars last season. In 12 games, Washington State attempted 624 passes, averaging out to 52 per game. …  The SEC hasn’t been friendly to the Cougars over the years. Washington State has played against the SEC six times in its history, posting a 1-5 record. The Cougars are 1-4 against Tennessee, and lost to Auburn on the road in the 2006 season opener 40-14, which marked the last time they faced an SEC foe.

KEY MATCHUPS

Washington State receivers vs. Auburn secondary

The Tigers return three starters from last season in corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis alongside free safety Jermaine Whitehead. Strong safety was formerly occupied by Demetruce McNeal, but he’s no longer with the team after being dismissed following an arrest during fall camp. In his place is Josh Holsey, a former corner who moved to safety in the spring and has remained there ever since. They will line up across from a Cougars’ receiving corps that brings back players who accounted for 70 percent of their yardage in 2012. The unit’s top pass-catcher is Brett Bartolone, a sophomore. He’ll be joined by a cadre of other options in Gabe Marks, Kristoff Williams, Dominique Williams and Isiah Myers. The team is also expecting big things from junior college transfer Vince Mayle, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound physical specimen.

EDGE: Even. The Cougars might hold the advantage here when it comes to depth, but there’s only so many receivers they can put on the field at the same time. Assuming the Tigers don’t suffer any injuries in the secondary during the game, they should be fine.Washington-State-University

Washington State offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line

Most games are decided up front and it won’t be any different in tonight’s tilt. It doesn’t matter how many times the Cougars want to throw if quarterback Connor Halliday doesn’t receive enough protection to get the ball out of his hands. That’s where Washington State’s much-maligned line comes in. It allowed more sacks than any team in the country (57) in 12 games last season, but those close to the team — including beat writer Christian Caple — seem to believe they have made great strides during the offseason. The Tigers are missing their top pass-rusher off the edge, as senior Dee Ford is out for an indefinite period of time with a knee injury. That being said, it has opened the door for less-experienced players to get an opportunity, as Auburn’s two first-team ends — LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders — are both making their first career start on Saturday.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with Ford out, it’s hard to give a nod to the nation’s most woeful offensive line in 2012. Expect the Tigers to be able to get pressure on Halliday with regularity.

Auburn running backs vs. Washington State’s front seven

The Tigers will try to get their ground game established from the outset. But the Cougars aren’t going to make it easy on them, as the strength of their defense lies with the front seven, led by linebacker Darryl Monroe, the team’s second-leading tackler last year. Fellow linebacker Justin Sagote started the last 10 games of last season, collecting 61 takedowns in that span. And along the line, Washington State brings back three players who saw significant action last season in Ioane Gauta, Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole to anchor its base 3-4 scheme. Auburn will try to run it right at them, with the option of handing it off to one of four players out of the backfield: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. That’s not even mentioning quarterback Nick Marshall, who is as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any player in the country.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with the experience the Cougars have returning, it’s not as if their run defense was stingy last season, as they only ranked 64th in the country in that category in 2012, allowing an average of 163.4 yards per game. Given the Tigers bevy of weapons at tailback and the fact they’ll be running behind an offensive line with four starters back, this matchup ends up in Auburn’s favor.

August 30, 2013

Commentary: Don’t get caught up in ‘numbers game’ Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Forget the numbers.

Look, I know it will be hard. After all, we’ve been bombarded with them non-stop during Auburn’s offseason. It can overwhelm the mind if one stops to think about it; the list is dizzying. The statistics click by at a pace that would please Gus Malzahn.

Ryan Black

Ryan Black

Nick Marshall threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns at Garden City Community College last season.

He ran for 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns.

The Tigers allowed opponents to rack up 420.5 yards per game on them last year.

Auburn wants to run as many plays as possible this fall — and for comparison’s sake, last season’s leader was Marshall, which had 92.8 offensive snaps per game.

It goes on and on.

But no statistic has been cited more often that the Tigers’ record in 2012: 3-9. A win Saturday against Washington State could go a long way toward finally putting last season to bed. Malzahn isn’t necessarily putting any additional pressure on himself or the team — at least not publicly.

Not that it should come as any surprise. Malzahn isn’t the type for bluster.

Even he had to admit it would be nice to begin his tenure at Auburn with a victory, though.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the first game or any game,” he said. “I want us to play. I want us to do things right, to be disciplined and protect the football, play hard. It’s no different than any other (game), but I think it’s common sense. We’ve got a team that had great struggles last year, so definitely it’d be great to get off to a good start.”

And if the Tigers are going emerge with a ‘W’ in Game Numero Uno, it will ultimately rest with Malzahn. Two men will have a say in the offense’s play-calling. Not surprisingly, numbers come into play here, too — it’s a matter of simple subtraction.

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will speak his piece. Malzahn will think about it. And then Malzahn will decide which play to run.

Some Tigers might have to settle for being a little disappointed their number — yes, there’s that word again — isn’t called often. Since Malzahn prefers to lean more toward the run, Auburn’s receivers will have to make the most of their opportunities in the passing game.

Then again, anything beats last season. No player has said it yet, but reading between the lines, it’s easy to deduce: They loathed Scot Loeffler’s pro-style system, which produced a putrid 18.7 points per game.

Yep, more stats.

They’re just impossible to avoid.

Similarly, receiver Quan Bray tiptoed around the elephant in the room regarding Loeffler’s less-than-stellar — to put it nicely — offensive output last year.

No, that’s not Bray’s way.

Like a good company man, he chose to emphasize what he liked about the hurry-up, no-huddle scheme the Tigers will use this fall.

“We have a lot spread guys,” the junior receiver said. “For (Malzahn) to come back, it’s a great thing because we have a lot of speed on the inside and on the outside and we’ve got a lot of playmakers at every position.”

So what kind of — wait for it — numbers will the Tigers tally in the opener?

Bray wasn’t shy about giving his take. Heck, he’s already thrown a number (yes, again) out there for Saturday: He wants to see the Tigers put 70 points on the board.

A lofty goal, if nothing else. A bit misguided, but lofty nonetheless.

Anyone focusing on the Tigers’ point total Saturday is missing the point.

Call it the Reverse Grantland Rice Theory.

When people look back on Saturday’s contest one day, they won’t care how the Tigers played the game.

What will matter is whether the Tigers won or lost.

It’s a harsh truth, but numbers show no favoritism.

Unlike most statistics, it’s an adage worth remembering.

August 28, 2013

Quote Roundup: Mike Leach Teleconference

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Washington State head coach Mike Leach took part in the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference on Tuesday. Check out a roundup of his quotes below. (Providing a roundup of the opposing coach’s quotes will be a running feature at War Eagle Extra every Wednesday afternoon.)

Here’s what Leach had to say in his eight-minute call with reporters:

Washington State head coach Mike Leach will lead his team into Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)

Washington State head coach Mike Leach will lead his team into Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)

On what he remembers about Kentucky’s 40-34 overtime win against Alabama in 1997, when he served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and matched wits with then-Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson:

“I don’t remember a darn thing (about Alabama’s defense). I never knew we’d gone against Ellis Johnson.”

On being informed Johnson was on the Crimson Tide’s staff that season:

“Son of a gun. I didn’t know that. Well that’s good to know. I didn’t know that. I felt like crazy that I’d known about his career for a long time. I had no idea.”

On what it was like to beat the Crimson Tide:

“It was a wild game and it was a heck of a game, I’ll tell you that. It really was a war. Kentucky hadn’t beat Alabama in 75 years. Can you imagine that? Now they didn’t play every one of those 75 years, but they played a lot of those years. For example, George Blanda was in the locker room. There was a fella that was a quarterback — and you could probably look it up — on something like the 1920-something team. He was the quarterback for that team the last time Kentucky had beaten Alabama on like the 1925 team. He was obviously in his 90s and in his wheelchair. He died not too long after that, well into his 90s. I’m not sure he didn’t stay around until Kentucky finally did beat Alabama (again).

“It was a heck of a game, back-and-forth. I felt like we should have won it in regulation (because) we had moved the ball awfully well. So when it got close, we had a good play or two on defense — got a turnover and blocked a field goal — and then down there in overtime we threw a curl route to Craig Yeast, who split two defenders and scored the winning touchdown.”

On preparing to face Auburn’s 4-2-5 scheme:

“One thing is that (Johnson’s) guys play really hard and have always played hard. And the other thing is they don’t throw a ton of stuff at you. It’s like they’ve got their philosophy and they’re going to execute it, which is honestly the approach I respect the most. And they just play hard. They’ve always been good at takeaways as well.”

On what he’s seen from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall:

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically). He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy, which is exactly why he’s had the opportunity to play two major positions on the team. I think he’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

On how much he has prepared his team for playing in Jordan-Hare Stadium and the difference in weather between Auburn and Pullman, Wash.:

“We’ve kind of embraced the fact that it’s been significantly hotter here the past couple of weeks than it has been down there. And then from there, once a place is loud, it’s loud. Once communication is reduced to the point where you need nonverbal communication, it’s all about the same from there.”

On the temperatures in Pullman recently:

“It’s warmer here this week than it’s going to be in Auburn. The week before, it was pretty much dead-even. And the week before that, it was significantly hotter here in Pullman. And if I wasn’t on my phone, I could look at my temperature thing and tell you with some detail within the accuracy that that provides.”

On his thoughts about the Cougars’ offensive line since the end of last season:

“(It has) improved. And there are a couple more bodies we can work in there.”

On the offensive line’s cohesiveness:

“A lot of them have played college football before. (Gunnar) Eckland has played college football. (Joe) Dahl — I guess you can’t say Dahl has necessarily played college football — but (Elliott) Bosch has played college football. (John) Fullington is back and Rico Forbes has played a little bit of college football. We’re glad Rico is back. So as inexperienced as we are, we’re significantly more experienced.

On how he has prepared for Marshall since no film is available of him playing quarterback against Division I competition:

“Yeah, we studied that (junior college film) and then also Coach (Gus) Malzahn has got a body of work of what he likes to do with his quarterback. And then of course you respect the abilities of all those guys and just try to figure out how to get in position within the core of their philosophy. And there’s a few tricks he mixes in, too. So (we) just have to play good, sound defense. And the thing is, he’s a really good quarterback, but we’re going to play against a lot of (good) quarterbacks this year, so we need to get used to that.”

7 at 7: Taking a stroll around the SEC

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — In case you didn’t know by now, it’s Wednesday, folks.SEC_new_logo

(Cue up the annoying Geico “Hump Day!!” camel ad. I’m just not a fan. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone, and if it does … well, deal with it.)

But back to more important matters. Now that it’s just three days away from Auburn’s season opener, we’ve already settled into a routine here at War Eagle Extra as far as weekly content is concerned. I’ll post the finalized schedule soon enough, but until that happens, take note: Every Wednesday, “7 at 7″ will consist of links from around the SEC, both Auburn and otherwise.

Without further ado, I give you today’s batch of items from around the league:

1. To keep with a time-honored tradition (dating back to last month), I’ll begin by shamelessly self-promoting the things posted to the blog the previous day, beginning with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s declaration that Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne are neck-and-neck at the top of the running back depth chart heading into Saturday. We also had wire-to-wire video coverage of Malzahn’s 16-minute press conference as well as a feature on left guard Alex Kozan. Oh, and don’t forget Tuesday’s notebook, which detailed Malzahn’s intrigue regarding Nick Marshall’s debut in an Auburn uniform.

2. Josh Kendall, the South Carolina beat writer for The State in Columbia, S.C., had an interesting article on Tuesday. As hard as it is to believe, the Gamecocks have only five seniors (!!!) listed on this year’s roster. Kendall explains how that came to be. And ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low had a good piece on Kelcy Quarles, one of South Carolina’s “other” defensive linemen, who is trying to do whatever he can to escape the long shadow of Jadeveon Clowney.

3. You’ve probably heard about the GQ profile on Nick Saban. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s your chance. It doesn’t disappoint, making Saban out to be the maniac everyone would think given his normal joyless demeanor.

4. Just how good is Robert Nkemdiche, the unquestioned top recruit in the Class of 2013? Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger tries to find an answer.

5. Speaking of highly-regarded recruits, LSU picked up a massive commitment for its 2015 class on Monday. The Tigers were able to keep hometown running back Nicholas Brossette to stay in Baton Rouge. An Auburn target, he also had offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Tennessee, UCLA and Vanderbilt — just to name a few — after he rushed for a school-record 2,118 yards and 44 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.

6. Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops announced that the Wildcats will play two quarterbacks against Western Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday. It consists of the sophomore pair of Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow. And yes, they have settled on a starter — Stoops just refused to reveal it to reporters.

7. Georgia will play in this week’s marquee game when it heads on the road Saturday night to square off against Clemson. For Bulldog tight end Jay Rome, it will be an opportunity to beat his father’s alma mater. (Stan Rome lettered in football in 1975, but he was an even better basketball player, as he still ranks 14th on the Tigers’ all-time scoring list.)

And since I normally like to end these with a video when I can, why not embed a video of one player leaping over another one? Besides, when you have a video like that, I think you’d probably have to find a reason not to post it, right? My colleague at The Telegraph in Macon, Seth Emerson, talked to linebacker (and Harris County graduate) Jordan Jenkins about his leap over freshman running back Brendan Douglas during one of the Bulldogs’ preseason scrimmages.

The video is provided below. And it didn’t end up being all for show — Jenkins’ display of athleticism led quarterback Christian LeMay to throw the ball right into the hands of linebacker Amarlo Herrera.

August 27, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn ‘curious to see how’ Nick Marshall responds in season opener

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — When Nick Marshall takes the field for the first time on Saturday, his coach will look on anxiously.

Nick Marshall will start his first game as Auburn's quarterback on Saturday. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was 'curious' to see how the junior responds. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Quarterback Nick Marshall will make his first start at Auburn on Saturday. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was intrigued to see how his new signal-caller will react upon taking the field. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Gus Malzahn’s apprehension is understandable. During his press conference on Tuesday, he noted that without the benefit of spring practice, it’s hard to predict how Marshall will react.

With that in mind, Malzahn said the coaching staff is going to do its best to “protect” the junior college transfer.

“I’ll be curious to see how he responds,” Malzahn said. “In practice, you put him through — it doesn’t matter if it’s quarterback or any other position — as many game-type situations as you can. But until you get him in that arena, that’s when everything becomes very clear.”

Marshall has shown no traces of the 20 interceptions he threw last season at Garden City Community College, as Malzahn trumpeted his signal-caller’s pinpoint precision.

“He’s very accurate, he really is,” Malzahn said. “He’s shown that he is accurate, not just in the vertical game but intermediate and short also.”

But as the well-worn cliche goes, doing it in practice is one thing. Doing it in a game — with live defenders waiting to pounce, which Marshall rarely faced in fall camp — is an entirely different story. To combat any nerves Marshall might have, Malzahn wants the quarterback to get comfortable before the Tigers start taking any chances.

“Then as the game goes on, you kind of get a feel when they come to the sidelines how they’re taking things in,” he said. “We’ll definitely keep that in mind early in the game.”

Malzahn was asked what the last thing he would say to Marshall before leaving the locker room Saturday. Getting Marshall to play without a hint of indecision is the goal, he said.

Not surprisingly, Malzahn’s hypothetical conversation will involve a generous dose of confidence-boosting advice.

“‘You’ve already done the work. You’ve already done the preparation,” he said. “It’s just a matter of, ‘Hey, you’re our guy. Just go out there and do your thing and have fun.’ That’s more or less the message that we’ll have for Nick.”

Tigers’ secondary prepares to battle Cougars’ ‘Air Raid’ attack

Malzahn’s take on the Tigers’ defense was concise: The coaching staff feels “as comfortable as we can” with five days remaining until Auburn hosts Washington State in the season opener for both teams.

“I know our coaches have worked extremely hard and our players really responded well,” he said.

No unit that will be tested more than the secondary, given Washington State’s penchant for passing; the Cougars had 624 attempts last season, more than any team in the nation. It doesn’t help matters that Auburn’s defensive backs have been thinned out by injury (cornerback Jonathan Jones) or dismissal (safety Demetruce McNeal). Regardless, the Tigers will have to press on, Malzahn said.

And it wouldn’t hurt if the defense is able to harrass Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday to alleviate the pressure on the secondary.

“When the quarterback had time (last year) they were very effective,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to get a pass rush. They’re going to throw it a lot, so we’re going to have to have some depth in the secondary. It’ll be a good challenge for our defense.”

Quick hits

Aside from Jones and defensive end Dee Ford, Malzahn said he couldn’t rule any other players out for Saturday “right now.” … According to Malzahn, the Tigers have yet to choose their captains for the game. … Auburn will have three coaches in the booth this season: defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig.