No. 8 Auburn enters Week 3 of the 2019 college football season undefeated after defeating Oregon, 27-21, and Tulane, 24-6, with Kent State visiting Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday.
In both victories, however, slow starts have been the story in the first half and have raised questions on whether or not the offensive line, which returned all five starters from last year, has actually improved from an inconsistent 2018 season.
The Tigers have a combined 90 yards rushing in first halves this season, finishing with 70 before halftime against Oregon in Week 1 and just 20 last week at home versus Tulane. Auburn carried the ball eight times for 55 yards in the first quarter against Oregon in the season opener, but managed just 15 yards in the second quarter on nine carries.
The offense took a step back against Tulane in Week 2 running the ball seven times for just five yards in the first quarter against the Green Wave defense, and six times for 15 yards in the second quarter. In both games, the offense performed much better in the second half but head coach Gus Malzahn has emphasized getting off to faster starts, especially on first down.
"Just really, you know, getting in second down-and-6 or better, really just getting some positive plays where you can run or throw in those situations. Really, that’s been my main focus,” Malzahn said. “We got to do better on first down, so that will be the goal this week. If we can do that, it’s going to help us in a lot of different areas, and it’ll help our young quarterback too. That’s going to be a focus.”
Apart from the rushing attack, the offensive line has struggled to protect true freshman quarterback Bo Nix consistently which has affected Nix’s ability to sit in the pocket and make accurate throws downfield. The freshman completed 13-of-31 pass attempts in the season-opening win over Oregon, but the majority of his incompletions were throwaways and a product of weak pass protection where he had to scramble out of the pocket to avoid a sack.
Malzahn was asked at his Tuesday press conference if he would consider any changes up front.
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"No. I think our offensive line, if you really look, really the positives, both second halves, we played really good football and finished really good,” Malzahn said. “There were no pre-snap penalties, we improved in that area, we haven't had a holding penalty, so there's a lot of good things going on up front. I think you'll see that grow as the season goes on."
The Tigers have, as Malzahn alluded to, finished games strong. The offense rushed for 206 yards against Oregon in Jerry World, and 172 yards in the home opener against Tulane.
“The evaluation is the first half, we’ve struggled a little bit,” Malzahn said. “Second half, like I said, we’ve played really good football. And some of that’s on me, now, too. We’ve got to do a better job as far as everything goes in the first half, as far as everything goes running-game wise. But I think we’re capable of being a good running team. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are. And we’ll get better. So that’s how I see it right now.”
Malzahn, whose team just climbed two spots in the AP Poll from No. 10 to No. 8 after covering the spread in back-to-back weeks, is taking the positives from a 2-0 start to the season but also knows that they need to clean up their execution versus Kent State with a road test at Texas A&M fast approaching.
“After this game we’ll have a really good idea of where we’re at and what we need to do as far as getting into conference play and all that,” Malzahn said. “That was kinda really our goal all along. We’re capable of being a good offense, there’s no doubt in my mind. It just takes the little things to start clicking and my experience is when those little things start clicking, that’s when you have a chance to be pretty good.”
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