Following a defensive grudge match against the defending national champion Clemson Tigers, Auburn now finds themselves in an almost identical situation as last season: the defense is playing lights out and the offense is inept.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s designation of “offensive genius” appears to be fading fast, as the Tigers amassed just 38 rushing yards and allowed 11 sacks against Clemson. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham completed 13 of 24 passes for just 79 yards and no scores.
Stidham appeared to be poised and confident on the first drive, when the Baylor transfer rifled a 23-yard pass over the middle to Nate Craig-Myers, who snared the pigskin in a tight window while sustaining a blow by the Clemson defense. That pass would prove to be the longest play from scrimmage for Auburn in Death Valley.
Auburn entered the redzone on their opening drive, but failed to reach the endzone and were forced to settle for a Daniel Carlson field goal. A stout Clemson defensive line halted Auburn at the end of the 16-play, 69-yard drive. Following that possession, Auburn accumulated just 48 total yards for the remainder of the contest.
“We just have to execute better all around,” Stidham said. “We’re going to regroup and we’re going to be a lot better.
The quarterback was running for his life all night. Some of the instances occurred when Clemson was right on top of him, and others when he had ample time in the pocket, but couldn’t find a receiver downfield.
It appeared in the preseason that Auburn had solved its under-center conundrum, however Stidham’s antics have digressed the appearance of the Tiger offense back to its early 2016 form.
“From a fan standpoint, the frustration that they have is, the way that we finished the season last year…and then Saturday night looked the same,” Malzahn said. “So I get that from that standpoint.
"I will say this, we are going to improve. We're going to be a good offense; that is for sure."
Last season, it was the dramatic victory against LSU that accelerated Auburn into their six-game tear. The offense was absent in that contest; however, the victory alone gave Auburn the momentum to crash into SEC foes with a powerful rushing attack and a quarterback in Sean White who was leading the conference in efficiency in the coming weeks.
“Jarrett’s a really good quarterback, but there were times we didn’t have anybody open,” Malzahn said. “That [the sacks] had something to do with him holding the football. He’s a good quarterback; he’s going to have a very good year.”
The problem laid not just with Stidham. The loss of Kerryon Johnson placed all the workload on tailback Kamryn Pettway, who played 63 of Auburn’s 66 offensive snaps in the loss. Pettway rushed for 74 yards on 22 carries.
The receiving corps, a unit that was labeled as inexperienced but talented in the preseason, has yet to arrive. Craig-Myers and sophomore counterpart Kyle Davis appeared to be able to come down with Stidham’s passes, but were barely targeted after the first quarter. The team’s leading returning wideout from 2016, Darius Slayton, caught just one pass. Through two weeks, former walk-on Will Hastings leads the squad with six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Kevin Steele’s defense locked down Kelly Bryant and Clemson aside from the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second. Auburn allowed only 284 total yards and forced a pair of turnovers, but had only six points to show for it.
“Obviously, we didn’t get it done on one side of the football,” Malzahn said. “It’s very frustrating for me, it’s very frustrating for our coaches but we have a team that has great leadership. We have a staff that is very close and we’re going to put it in our rearview mirror and we’re going to move forward.”
In Auburn’s last ten outings against Top 25 opponents, the Tigers have scored more than 10 points only a trio of times. Malzahn’s lackluster history against quality opponents is catching up to the fifth-year head coach.
However, the Tigers have a grace period to try to recuperate, as FCS opponent Mercer comes to Jordan-Hare before Auburn travels to SEC bottom-feeding Missouri.
It’s likely that Auburn won’t face off with another ranked opponent until travelling to Baton Rogue to take on LSU on October 14. That is, unless Ole Miss can down No. 1 Alabama or Mississippi State is able to successfully navigate their daunting pre-Auburn gauntlet of No. 12 LSU and No. 13 Georgia.
Before ramping up conference play, Malzahn recognizes the importance of solving his offensive issue immediately, and promises that the Tigers will make a similar turnaround as last season.
“I will say this, we are going to improve. We’re going to be a good offense before this is all said and done, I promise you that.” Malzahn said following the loss to Clemson. “We're going to get better, just like we did last year."