AUBURN — Gus Malzahn does his best to keep his team from buying in to both hype and negativity. Auburn didn’t get too high when it was getting patted on the back after demolishing Mississippi State on Sept. 28, the head coach said. It didn’t feel like the sky was falling after it suffered a disappointing loss at Florida a week later.
But there is one position group on the roster that seems to internalize the things that are being said. Not about where the Tigers stand in the SEC or national conversation, but about its own play on the field. And those things don’t always sit particularly well with them.
“Our offensive line has taken a lot of heat from people that don’t understand,” senior left guard Marquel Harrell said after that rout of the Bulldogs late last month. “Like, you go on Twitter and people that don’t understand football and don’t understand how things work… we just kind of push that stuff to the side, because at the end of the day, we do our job up front.”
Harrell, for the most part, is correct. He and the rest of Auburn’s all-senior offensive line — which also includes left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho (and, for one game, Bailey Sharp), center Kaleb Kim, right guard Mike Horton and right tackle Jack Driscoll — have overall performed better so far this season than they did a year ago.
The Tigers are averaging 5.1 yards per carry through six games, which is nearly a full yard more than last year’s mark of 4.2 at the same point in the season. True freshman quarterback Bo Nix has been sacked only seven times this season after Jarrett Stidham was sacked 13 times through the same stretch last year.
Still, there is room for that unit to improve, specifically in terms of consistency. There have been times where Auburn’s offensive line has, as Harrell said, done its job, and the entire offense has hummed as a result. But there have also been times where that group has struggled to assert its will or get into a rhythm, particularly early in games.
So, during the bye week, Malzahn said Auburn went “back to basics” with the offensive line. “‘What are we good at? What are we average at?’ Let’s do the things we’re good at and not do the things we’re average at,” the head coach continued. “It really comes down to execution, and just basic Football 101. So, we really just tried to go back to that.”
That probably seems obvious. But, as Malzahn explained going into Saturday’s game at Arkansas in Fayetteville (11 a.m. CT, SEC Network), it’s not necessarily easy to do during game weeks.
“When you’re in the heat of everything, and you’ve got a game and a game and a game, you start having to scheme up and work on their different pressures and looks,” he said. “Well, when you have an off week, you sit there and work on you. And that’s really what we did: We slowed down and worked on the basics. And I really look for that group to improve.”
There are plenty of things the Tigers have been good at this season. Their 467 yards on the ground against Kent State in Week 3 marked the program’s best performance since a 2016 rout of Arkansas when it rumbled for 543 on the ground. Nix threw for 324 of his career-best 335 passing yards (and two touchdowns) against Mississippi State from a clean pocket. There’s a reason Auburn ranks seventh nationally averaging 134.2 rushing yards in the second halves of games.
Where the Tigers can improve, though, is how quickly they figure out what that thing they’re good at will be in a given week — they rank 41st averaging only 95.7 rushing yards in the first halves of games.
Auburn finished the first half with 70 rushing yards against Oregon, 20 against Tulane and 35 against Florida, with the inside zone run that is supposed to be the offense’s bread and butter not being particularly effective each time. It found something at halftime of each of those games that allowed it to be more successful in the second half — a simple commitment against the Ducks, more power and counter runs with pulling guards against the Green Wave, and more split zone against the Gators — but a loss in the latter game shows that waiting until the second half to find success on the ground is not exactly a winning recipe.
“Our offensive line is capable of being a really good offensive line. I do believe that,” Malzahn said. “But at the same time I need to put them in successful situations, too. It works both ways.”
That loss in Gainesville also exposed some of the Tigers’ struggles in short-yardage situations. Auburn faced third-and-1, third-and-3, third-and-2 and third-and-1 during the first three quarters. Whitlow ran for no gain, no gain, 1 yard and no gain, respectively, with his blockers being pushed into the backfield each time.
“It’s frustrating,” Harrell said. “Third-and-short, that’s on the O-line. It’s on us. If we don’t get the ball on third-and-short, something went wrong.”
Auburn needs everything to go right for that group in the second half of the season. The schedule is getting tougher — Saturday’s game at Arkansas is followed by a road trip to face LSU in Baton Rouge (a place the program hasn’t won since 1999) and, later, home games against rivals Georgia and Alabama. Malzahn has already said he wants to put Nix in “better situations” in those games, which could mean less responsibility before the snap and in the passing game (which would place more pressure on the offensive line and run game).
The circumstances are also more difficult — the Tigers will have to play at least half of those games (if not more) without their leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow, who suffered a knee injury late against the Gators that required surgery during the bye week.
Malzahn said he has confidence that Kam Martin, Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams, Malik Miller and Harold Joiner can come together to pick up the slack at running back, but none have produced at the level Whitlow has so far this season (110 carries, 544 yards, seven touchdowns) at any point in their college careers.
“We know that all the guys have the ability to get the job done,” Kim said. “Really, all we have to do is open up the holes for those guys and we’re confident they’ll be able to find them.”
That’s why Auburn went back to basics up front — the offensive line had some really good moments during the first half of the season, but it wants to have them even more consistently in the second half.
“Just a lot of self-evaluation,” Kim said. “That was kind of the main focus, just to really improve what it was we were struggling with the first half of the season. We had a whole week to work on that, so I think that was a good thing.”