Nov. 5, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. – On Aug. 31, when Auburn held on to beat Washington State 31-24 in Gus Malzahn’s first game as head coach, there was little to indicate what was to come. It was a much-needed win, but how many more would there be?
Not even the most optimistic Auburn fan would have predicted seven wins in the next eight games and a No. 7 national ranking in the first week of November.
It happened one game at a time, one play at a time, one practice at a time. Players who had been almost forgotten emerged. Freshmen played beyond their years. Veterans who wanted never again to feel the misery of last season’s 3-9 record took their games to another level.
The Auburn team that will go to Tennessee on Saturday is dramatically different from the one that opened the season with a white-knuckle win over the Cougars and, two weeks later, had to drive the length of the field to beat Mississippi State.
The defense, without a lot of explosive playmakers, has given up yards but has been stingy with points. Nowhere has it been tougher than when opponents have reached the red zone. And at no time has it been tougher than the fourth quarter. The offense has averaged more than 300 rushing yards per game, best in the Southeastern Conference, and 36.8 points per game.
The team that started the season with hope for better days now plays with the conviction of a team that expects to win.
The turning points? There was the 88-yard drive quarterback Nick Marshall engineered to beat Mississippi State. There was a second-half resurgence at LSU in the season’s only loss. There was an emotional and dramatic win in a shootout at Texas A&M.
Players have improved physically, but most of all, their mindset has changed dramatically. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have seen it up close.
“Oh, gosh,” Johnson said. “When we first got here, I think a lot of guys were dealing with doubt. They’d fight and they’d try hard, but in the back of their minds they had doubt. When you start winning, they have confidence that they can do it.”
Lashlee says that confidence has grown for players and for their coaches.
“The first thing is between the ears,” Lashlee said. “I think guys individually are believing in themselves more, but they believe in each other more. It helped that even Washington State was a tight game. Mississippi State was pretty big, then the way we finished against LSU. That gave our guys some confidence they could do some good things.
“Over time, as coaches, we’ve been able to find out what our players are good at and they feel good about what we do.”
In every game, these Tigers have done something to show they are steadily improving as a team or a player has emerged to show he’s ready to compete at a high level.
Take a look:
Game 1: Auburn 31, Washington State 24
* Robenson Therezie showed he was a big-time playmaker, intercepting two passes, including one in the end zone as Washington State drove toward a potential tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
* Corey Grant showed he could really run, rushing for 146 yards on nine carries and scoring on a 75-yard run.
* New quarterback Nick Marshall passed for just 99 yards and ran for 27, but he ran the team efficiently.
* Freshman defensive tackle Montravius Adams showed why he was a 5-star recruit, running over an offensive lineman and sacking quarterback Connor Halliday on his first play.
* Auburn’s secondary showed it could intercept passes after all, picking off Halliday three times after managing just two interceptions all of the 2012 season.
Game 2: Auburn 38, Arkansas State 9
* Enter junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne. In his first significant action, he rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Junior Tre Mason showed a glimpse of things to come with 99 yards on 14 carries.
* Marshall showed he could throw the ball, completing 10-of-17 for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
* Freshman receiver Marcus Davis emerged as a threat, making a leaping catch for an 18-yard touchdown.
* Junior defensive end LaDarius Owens made good on his opportunity and was in on eight tackles. Senior defensive end Craig Sanders showed he, too, would be a defensive force.
Game 3: Auburn 24, Mississippi State 20
* It was a real coming out party for Marshall. Showing nerves of steel, he led an 88-yard drive in the final 1:56, hitting C.J.Uzomah with the game-winner from 11 yards out with 10 seconds left. Marshall completed 23-of-34 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns.
* With Chris Davis injured, senior Ryan White had a big game at cornerback. He and linebacker Jake Holland led the team in tackles with eight apiece. White would become the most versatile and perhaps even most valuable Auburn defensive back.
Game 4: LSU 35, Auburn 21
* In the first, and so far only, disappointment of the season, Auburn players showed something they had not showed in 2012. Down 21-0 in the second quarter, they refused to fold. They were the stronger team for almost three quarters. No, LSU did not let up.
* Mason began a surge that goes on until now with 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
* Marshall showed he could come back from adversity, passing for 224 yards and running for 56.
Game 5: Auburn 30, Ole Miss 22
* Marshall showed he was a major threat running the ball, gaining 140 yards on 14 carries and scoring two touchdowns.
* Auburn finally unleashed a pass rush, sacking Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace six times. Two of those sacks were by defensive end Carl Lawson, another 5-star freshman. Two were by junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright, coming into his own, too.
Game 6: Auburn 62, Western Carolina 3
* Auburn showed it was ready for a different kind of challenge. Instead of sleepwalking past an outmanned opponent, the Tigers took care of business.
* With Marshall nursing an injury, true freshman Jeremy Johnson got his first action of the season and showed the position would still be in good hands. He completed 17-of-21 passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns. He was the SEC Freshman of the Week.
* The running game went to another level with 511 yards, third most in school history. The Tigers’ 712 yards total offense was the most in school history. Offense, Malzahn style, was picking up steam.
Game 7: Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
* Auburn showed it could play with the big boys, and do it on the road.
* Marshall directed another game-winning drive, taking the Tigers 75 yards after A&M took the lead with 5:05 left. He only had to throw once, but that was a 27-yarder to Davis, who made a spectacular catch, on third-and-9. Fans might gripe that he doesn’t throw consistently enough, but his teammates are true believers.
* Senior defensive end Dee Ford, who missed the first two games with an injury, showed he would be a force going forward. After A&M reached the Auburn 18, he sacked superstar quarterback Johnny Manziel two of the final three plays.
Game 8: Auburn 45, Florida Atlantic 10
* Auburn again showed it would overlook no one, making short work of the Owls.
* If there had been any questions about Johnson’s ability to get it done at quarterback, he answered them again. After Marshall suffered a shoulder injury when he ran over a defender, Johnson completed 10-of-16 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. He was SEC Freshman of the Week again.
Game 9: Auburn 35, Arkansas 17
* Spread? What spread? Auburn threw just nine passes and still chewed up the Razorbacks for 233 rushing yards.
* Mason made his statement that he’s as good as any in the SEC with 169 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries.
* And the defense reminded us all again of its red zone prowess with a goal line stand after Arkansas had a first down at the 4 in the second quarter. The last two tackles were made by little-used redshirt freshman linebacker JaViere Mitchell.
With a challenging closing stretch ahead, Johnson and Lashlee make it clear that improvement must continue.
“In some areas, we’ve improved greatly. In other areas, I don’t know that we have,” Johnson said.
“We’ve lost some guys in the secondary. I think we were playing at a real high level there early in the season. It’s not that we’re not playing good there now, but I don’t know that we are playing better.
“We’ve developed a lot of depth up front, and that’s really helped us. Those guys are getting better individually and we have more guys that are playing at a level that is winning football. I think that’s one of the biggest things that has helped us. It has helped us overcome the trouble we’ve had with injuries in the secondary.”
Lashlee says there are areas that have not developed to where they need to be and others where there is still ample room for improvement.
“We’ve made a lot of strides each week,” Lashlee said. “There’s no question. At the same time, it’s going to get tougher.”
Yes, it is.
When Tennessee was last at Neyland Stadium, it knocked South Carolina out of the top 10 with a 23-21 victory. When Saturday’s game is done, home games against Georgia and Alabama will be next. Based on expectations, this season has already been a good one. Can it be great?
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: