Guerry Clegg commentary: Malzahn does things his way

September 1, 2013 

AUBURN, Ala. --Perfect? Far from it.

Pretty? Well, there's that ol' eye of the holder thing.

Positive? Absolutely.

Gus Malzahn's debut as Auburn's head coach Saturday night -- a 31-24 victory over Washington State -- helped bring closure to the nightmare that was the 2012 season.

Overall, it was everything Tigers fans could reasonably hope for. Unless, that is, you want boring and conventional. You will find neither in Malzahn's playbook. But what you will find is an abundance of nerve and determination.

With his first point-after touchdown decision as Auburn's head coach, Malzahn made that clear. Actually, for most coaches, this would not have even been a decision. They would not have even given it any thought. They would have sent out the kicking unit to make the extra point and tie it at 7-7.

Malzahn did send the kicking unit out, all right. But they spread out and snapped the ball directly to Ryan White, who ran it in for two points.

And just like that, the Tigers had an 8-7 lead, and Auburn fans had a glimpse into what Gus Malzahn football will be like.

Granted, returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, as Tre Mason did, wasn't part of the script. And Corey Grant's 75-yard touchdown run was a bit of good fortune, as replays showed he nearly stepped out of bounds. And without those two plays, the Tigers could have been run right out of their own stadium by a Pac-10 bottom feeder.

Those two plays answered touchdown drives by Washington State of 67 and 75 yards, respectively. See, it turns out Auburn isn't the only team bent on making amends for a 3-9 season. The Cougars hardly resembled a team that was the doormat of Pac-12. Or co-doormats with Colorado, if you want to get technical about it.

But the Tigers' resilience at those critical junctures suggested that this year's Tigers will rip apart at the seams.

Grant's touchdown run gave Auburn a 22-21 lead late in the first half, the one-point difference being Malzahn's decision to go for two.

From there, the defense stabilized and held the Cougars to a mere field goal the rest of the way. Not that it was uneventful. Defensive back Robenson Therezie intercepted a Connor Halliday pass in the end zone to preserve a seven-point lead with six minutes to play.

That might have sealed it if not for a fumble by Mason, which the Cougars recovered at midfield, giving them one more shot.

Here is where last year's team would have collapsed. Instead, the Tigers made yet another defensive stand. Halliday's fourth down pass sailed incomplete, and the Tigers took over with two minutes remaining.

And here's perhaps another glimpse into Malzahn's psyche. Whom did he entrust to give the ball with the game on the line? It was Mason again, who nearly fumbled away this hard earned victory.

It's hard to read much into season openers. You might recall, their defense didn't look so exceptional three years ago in the opener against Arkansas State. The next week, they barely survived Mississippi State.

But that team grew up each week. The team that beat Oregon for the national championship didn't even resemble the one that struggled at times in those first two games.

This certainly isn't to suggest these Tigers have championship potential. It's simply to say do not read too much into barely beating a weak West Coast team.

They won. Their new quarterback, Nick Marshall, showed potential. Their defense grew up.

All in all, a successful night.

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