Guerry Clegg commentary: What a difference one drive makes

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerSeptember 17, 2013 

Sure, a pair of skinny wins over two seemingly average teams and a comfortable win over lower-level Arkansas State is not necessarily the resume of a BCS contender.

Even the most ardent Auburn fan gets that. Still, that bit of perspective notwithstanding ...

What a difference one drive makes.

Two games of meaningful progress nearly came undone for Auburn. A loss to Mississippi State, though hardly an embarrassment on its own merits, would have diminished all their good work in those victories over Washington State and Arkansas State.

Failing to move the football with any regularity would have signaled trouble for Gus Malzahn's offense.

No matter, now.

One drive changed all of that. That final drive covering 88 yards, capped by an 11-yard pass from Nick Marshall to tight end C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left in the game, turned what would have been a confidence-bruising loss into a 24-20 victory.

That victory kept the Tigers' record unblemished and fostered hope for this week's game at LSU. This is Auburn's opportunity regain credibility. LSU is big, fast and athletic. But also very beatable. Zach Mettenberger is one of the most improved quarterbacks in college football, at least statistically with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in three games. But he remains largely unproven. Eight of those TD's came against UAB and Kent State.

Against TCU, Mettenberger was pretty ordinary -- 16 completions in 32 attempts, 251 yards. If Auburn can hold him to similar numbers, the Tigers will have a chance.

That is, they will have a chance provided Marshall continue to progress. That final drive against a respectable Mississippi State defense showed that Marshall can be a capable passer. Marshall was nearly flawless. He accounted for 85 yards on that drive. He started the drive by running for six yards, then hitting five consecutive passes. A two-yard keeper gave Auburn a first down at the Mississippi State 25.

Even if the drive had stalled there, the Tigers were at least within Cody Parkey's field goal range, which would have tied the score at 20-all. After Marshall's next two passes were incomplete, it seemed like they might be content to let Parkey tie it. Instead, Marshall ran for 11 yards and another first down, this time to the Mississippi State 14. One play later, Marshall found Uzomah in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.

Granted, one drive does not suddenly make him Cam Newton. But it does validate the belief that he has the ability to be successful. Marshall threw for 37 touchdowns last year at Garden City Community College. Malzahn signed him to step in and become a big-time player.

But Marshall also had 25 turnovers. Perhaps his early inconsistency was due to being overly cautious with the football. There were times against Washington State and Mississippi State that Marshall had receivers wide open deep but he overthrew them. Who knows? If he had hit two or three of those, it might have boosted his confidence earlier.

Maybe that game-winning drive will do just that. No, he's not going to complete six of eight passes and run for 19 yards on every drive. But if Marshall can become a consistent play-maker in Malzahn's spread offense, he could give the Tigers enough offense to compete with LSU.

Matt Miller, his offensive coordinator at Garden City, described Marshall as "freakishly talented" in an article on AL.com.

"Talent wise," Miller said, "he's as talented of a quarterback as Johnny Manziel."

A stretch? Of course it is. But he doesn't have to be Johnny Manziel or Cam Newton to make Auburn's offense productive. He just has to play with the confidence he displayed on that final drive Saturday. If so, Auburn's season of redemption could turn into something even more special.

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