Longest play in AU history sparks Tigers
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — For more than two quarters, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s fast-paced offense sputtered — effective at times, sloppy at others, not quite the explosive point machine it was billed as.
That changed in one record-setting play.
Quarterback Chris Todd hit wideout Terrell Zachery in stride for a 93-yard touchdown reception, the longest play in Auburn history, jump-starting the Tigers’ offense to a 556-yard night and a 37-13 victory against Louisiana Tech in head coach Gene Chizik’s coaching debut before 81,143 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“There are always impostors in a game,” Chizik said. “There are things that happen that you have to overcome. They aren’t necessarily going to happen the rest of the game, and they are not going to dictate how you play the rest of the game. ... I was proud to see how we responded to that.”
The win — at least temporarily — eases concerns about Chizik’s underwhelming 5-19 record in two seasons at Iowa State, getting him off to the same start as such Auburn coaching luminaries as Tommy Tuberville, Terry Bowden, Pat Dye and Ralph “Shug” Jordan, who all won in their debuts on the Plains.
The normally reserved Chizik ran the gamut of emotions Saturday. He showed a rare display of enthusiasm during the pregame Tiger Walk, wildly pumping his fist and shouting to fans for the duration of his walk to the stadium. He calmly paced the sidelines during the game, only breaking form when he got in an argument with an official about a questionable pass interference call.
And afterward, he soaked everything in, taking his time hugging family members before exiting the field to cheers with two fists raised.
“It’s great to win your opening game,” Chizik said. “The weight off my shoulder? I have weight on my shoulder on every game. I just felt prepared.”
It wasn’t all easy sailing. Auburn got off to an inauspicious start that featured several penalties and two fumbles in Louisiana Tech territory. But everything clicked for the Tigers in the second half, and it all started with the touchdown pass to Zachery, which Auburn tried after coaches noticed the Bulldogs’ corners creeping toward the line.
“We had run it the play before that, and I saw the corner pressing really hard on it,” said Zachery, who had two career catches in his first two years at Auburn. “So we just came back with the double move.”
The touchdown opened up everything else in the offense. With fewer defenders near the line, Auburn’s running game flourished. Malzahn followed through on its promise to run the ball, and the Tigers responded, finishing with 255 rushing yards on 52 carries, more than any game last season.
Ben Tate (117 rushing yards) and Onterio McCalebb (148) topped the 100-yard mark, while Kodi Burns proved to be effective as a Wildcat option, running eight times for 23 yards and a 1-yard touchdown. McCalebb was the first Tigers freshman since Bo Jackson in 1982 to top the century mark.
“I was kind of nervous in the first place,” McCalebb said. “But after the first play, I told the offensive line it’s time. And once I told the offensive line it’s time, it’s time to roll.”
Todd, who reclaimed his job as starter after missing spring practice because of offseason shoulder surgery, finally showed off what he could do with a healthy arm. The senior completed 17 of 26 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, the one to Zachery and a 17-yarder that he dropped into the arms of Darvin Adams in the corner of the end zone.
“We look for our quarterback to manage the team and don’t turn the ball over,” Chizik said. “And I felt for his first game in this offense, he did his job tonight.”
The Tigers got a boost on special teams, where place-kicker Wes Byrum shook off his dismal 2008 season to drill field goals from 25, 49 and 47 yards.
And the defense, although thin across the board, held strong against Louisiana Tech’s no-frills attack. The Bulldogs gained only 245 yards, and two of their three scoring drives were prolonged by Auburn pass interference and face mask penalties, easily correctable mistakes, according to Chizik.
“We got some penalties on defense tonight,” Chizik said. “I call them try-hard penalties; they’re trying. You know, you get kind of an incidental face mask in there two or three times. You take away some of those penalties on some of those drives, and I don’t know if you can really draw up a first game with that many new players any better.”