By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn was throwing into the end zone, not once, but twice, in the final seconds with designs on beating No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night.
The Tigers weren't able to win it -- Clemson hung on for a 19-13 victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium -- but coach Gus Malzahn saw hope in a defense that stood tall against a powerhouse offense, and his Tigers who almost won it in the end.
"I'm proud the way they fought," Malzahn said. "That's one of the best teams in college football. That encourages me that this team is going to be a very good football team."
The defense led the way in the season-opener. Malzahn said so. His quarterback rotation found its legs in the second half as well, scoring with 3:22 to play, then just missing as the clock hit 0:00.
The game story is here
Malzahn's decision to rotate Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III at quarterback, and have running backs Kerryon Johnson and H-back Chandler Cox take direct snaps as well, was bound to grab headlines.
"We went into this thing knowing we were going to play all three. All three had packages. That was our plan.
"And we may continue to do that. We'll see how each game goes."
Malzahn turned his praise, however, to his defense, which held Clemson to 166 yards in the second half, and 399 in the game. Clemson averaged a school-record 514.5 yards a game last season.
"I'm very proud of our defense," Malzahn said. "That's one of the best offenses in college football and holding those guys to 19 points was really unbelievable as far as the effort.
"Our guys played their guts out."
The defense set up the game's final drive, when White drove Auburn to a chance at victory.
"We played them down to the end," Malzahn said.
"There aren't a whole lot people holding that offense to 19 points, especially with that quarterback. That quarterback is the real deal."
That quarterback is Deshaun Watson, who hit 19-of-34 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 21, too. But those weren't the dazzling numbers he put up last season when he became the first player in big-time college history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for a 1,000 more in the same season.
Malzahn said he was proud the team hung in to have a chance at the end.
"We've got guys who have a lot of guts. This team will improve... this team will be just fine," he said. "This team has a lot of character, a lot of great leadership, and we'll rebound."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine