ATLANTA Outgoing offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had drawn a lot of criticism for Auburn’s struggles this season.
Hired at Arkansas State last month, Malzahn stuck around to call the plays in the Chick-fil-A Bowl for an Auburn offense that did not have its leading rusher and lost its starting quarterback early in the first quarter.
None of those factors made any difference.
Auburn blasted Virginia 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl behind a Malzahn-directed offense that featured a game plan built to highlight Auburn’s speed. “He was on the aggressive side,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “We have a lot of speed, starting with Onterio (McCalebb), and we have some weapons they have to be concerned with.”
Replacing Michael Dyer, the bruising 210-pound star who is suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules, fell to the speedy McCalebb, a 174-pounder who normally takes Auburn’s carries on the edge. Throughout bowl practices, McCalebb had been asked if he had the body type to be a feature back.
“I’ve been here for three years, and people say that I can’t do this or can’t do that,” McCalebb said. “I just wanted to go out and play my game.” McCalebb finished with 109 yards rushing on 10 carries, caught two passes for 53 yards, scored two touchdowns and was named offensive MVP. But the speedy junior wasn’t the only weapon Malzahn used. Freshman running back Tre Mason picked up 64 yards and scored on a 22-yard touchdown run. Emory Blake had six catches for 108 yards. Kiehl Frazier was used as the Tigers’ inside presence and picked up 55 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The offense took a little time to get in gear.
Both of Auburn’s first two drives ended badly, and starting quarterback Clint Moseley left the game in the first quarter with a leg injury. Moseley was on crutches after the game.
Malzahn replaced Moseley with Barrett Trotter, the junior who opened the season as Auburn’s starter before giving way to Moseley at halftime of the Florida game.
The decision came as a surprise. Most observers thought Auburn would put in Frazier, the highly-touted freshman. Trotter had taken reps as Auburn’s scout team quarterback at times in the week leading up to the game.
“There were times after not playing where you’re thinking, ‘Am I ever going to play again,” Trotter said. “As the backup, it’s kind of the role I’ve been in lately, you have to prepare to come in cold.”
Trotter responded by leading Auburn’s offense to arguably its best performance of the season.
Against a Virginia defense that was ranked 31st in the country, Auburn’s offense racked up 454 total yards, set a season high for points and broke his own school record for most points in a bowl game. The previous high was the 38 Auburn scored in its 2009 Outback Bowl win over Northwestern.
Malzahn had more than a little help from the Tigers’ special teams. Unable to move the ball before Moseley’s injury, Auburn got a jump-start when walk-on freshman Garrett Harper blocked a Virginia punt to set up a Frazier touchdown run.
Chizik, who took over as defensive coordinator for the bowl game in place of the departed Ted Roof, oversaw a defense that came up with enough big plays to win. Auburn’s defense gave up 312 passing yards, but the Tigers also forced two turnovers, stopped a pair of Virginia fourth-down tries and got another blocked punt from Angelo Blackson late in the third quarter that effectively sealed the game.
“I thought our offense moved the ball and did some things,” Virginia head coach Mike London said. “But you see why we were down, because of the explosive plays they had.”
Now that the bowl game is over, Malzahn is moving on to Arkansas State. But he found a way to set a few more records before he goes.