COLLIER: Malzahn stuck in the past


Jay G. Tate/

Walking up to the stadium for last week’s opener, I noticed a hand-made sign out in front of an Auburn fraternity house which read, “STIDHAM IS OUR SAVIOR.”

“That’s pretty over the top,” I thought to myself. “But I hope it’s right.”

The students who spray-painted that message doubtlessly expected the sophomore transfer to step into Cam Newton’s massive cleats and single-handedly eliminate Auburn’s long-running offensive malaise.

That’s a lot to ask of one 21-year-old. Even a transcendent talent like Newton needed a functioning offensive line, capable receivers and healthy running backs to complete the package. That's to say nothing of a functioning offensive scheme putting it all together.

As the Clemson game made painfully clear — given the 11 sacks Auburn's quarterback absorbed — Jarrett Stidham has the benefit of few if any of those things.

This was one of those if you’d told me games, as in, if you’d told me at 5:30 Saturday night that Clemson would score 14 points and turn the ball over twice, I’d have bet the mortgage on Auburn winning comfortably.

Instead, we got yet another replay of semi-success for about a quarter followed by absolute offensive futility for the rest of the contest.

It appears I was wrong a week ago when I looked at the vanilla Tiger offense against Georgia Southern and saw an attempt at obfuscation. That wasn’t sandbagging or keeping a new scheme under wraps. That was just the way it is, once again.

There was nothing new here, and apparently no attempt to adjust in the face of the glaringly obvious. Just the same old Kamryn Pettway up the middle or long-developing deep routes — and very little else.

The fundamental dumbness of that minimal game plan in the face of Clemson’s outstanding front seven is, at this late date, more than a little mind-boggling.

Pettway obviously is injured, lacking much of his steamroller forward power of last season and the ability to cut outside. Even so, he’s not the only running back on the roster. The speed at which Malzahn and new OC Chip Lindsey abandoned any attempt to re-establish the running game in the second half, despite the close score, defies all explanation.

Even a hobbled Pettway was slowly wearing down the purple Tigers during the first two quarters. But Malzahn and Lindsey apparently panicked, and put their faith in those beguiling YouTube videos of Stidham lofting beautiful long passes into the Texas night against Big 12 defenses.

The result was an offensive disaster. The line couldn’t protect Stidham, the receivers couldn’t get open and the quarterback (rather understandably) lost his accuracy and composure during that ridiculous second half.

Not to take anything away from Clemson’s superb defensive squad, but this game was another monumental coaching failure on Malzahn’s part. For the second year in a row, utter offensive incompetence cost Auburn an eminently winnable game against Cousin Clem.

Making things worse, all Auburn’s staff had to do to create a way out was look at the field. Unable to run or throw deep in the face of a magnificent Tiger defense, Clemson adjusted late in the second quarter to a quick short-passing game. It didn’t light up the stats display, but it yielded two nice touchdown drives, which were more than enough to win.

I can’t for the life of me understand what would have been wrong with Auburn doing the same thing. Throw in some bang-bang crossing routes and quick outs, give those linebackers something to think about other than mauling a quarterback watching in vain for somebody to get open deep.

Instead, Malzahn and Lindsey wasted one of the great Auburn defensive efforts of the last decade-plus stubbornly sticking with a game plan that was dead in the water long before halftime. And that doesn’t even count the buffoonery of getting a fourth-down delay of game on the one yard line after a time out.

It was as disheartening a loss as I’ve seen in quite a while.


Jay G. Tate/

The most important question any football coach has to answer over his career is, “Can he learn?” Lots of coaches have succeeded initially through guile or energy or plain old luck only to fall by the wayside. The ones who have long-term success are the coaches who can understand what’s happened when things go wrong. Then then change accordingly, even when it goes against all their instincts.

Pat Dye was committed to pure smash-mouth offense and won the SEC in 1983. As defenses schemed up to stop Auburn’s running game beginning in 1984, he had to make a choice: change or fail. Dye ejected his old friend Jack Crowe, promoted Pat Sullivan and Larry Blakeney to run his offense. A revitalized passing game led the Tigers to three straight conference titles, dominating the conference until Steve Spurrier arrived to change the balance of power.

Terry Bowden learned the wrong lesson after his wild success in 1993-94 — and changed for change’s sake. Bowden decided he was an offensive genius and abandoned the balanced attack that had flummoxed most of the conference in favor of a five-wide scheme that quickly became derided as the “Chuck-N-Duck.” Bowden’s unwillingness to accept that fundamental mistake eventually ended his Auburn tenure and his career as a major-school head coach.

Tommy Tuberville, tired of losing out on recruits to rivals with more wide-open offenses, took the half-measure of bringing in a coordinator with a radical new scheme without giving him authority over long-tenured assistants. The spectacular failure that followed also cost the head coach his job and eventually his career. Gene Chizik, who ought to have learned from an example, followed a similar and even more destructive path.

Which of those paths Gus Malzahn is going to follow now is, even after this unforced error of a game, just barely an open question. It’ll be a good month before Auburn faces another top-notch defense. That’s enough time to retool and, if it’s possible to do so, get the offensive staff’s heads on straight.

But that road is narrow and its won't be widening any time soon. It won’t take many more examples of futility against quality opposition before Malzahn will have to learn a very different lesson: how to be an offensive coordinator again.