The yards and points mounted, much to the excitement of the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd, but Auburn’s offensive players and coaches left last Saturday’s game against Louisiana Tech somewhat unfulfilled.
The root of their discontent? The offense wasn’t fast enough.
“We are not anywhere close to being satisfied with the rhythm and the tempo of our offense right now,” coach Gene Chizik said. “We’re not close. … It has got to be faster.”
Auburn ran 79 plays in the 37-13 victory, finishing with 556 yards of total offense, but the Tigers didn’t reach the frenetic pace preferred by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, whose offensive theory is based on speed.
History suggests it takes a while for Malzahn’s offense to get up to optimal speed. While serving as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008, Malzhan’s offenses averaged 73 plays during the first three games of the season. The remainder of the time, they averaged 81.7.
By the end of each year, Malzahn’s offenses were hitting on all cylinders. In the final two games of both years, the Golden Hurricane averaged 90 plays per game.
“You can do so much in practices and scrimmages and all that, but, when you get your first game, the reality hits about how fast you can actually go as far as the officials will let you,” Malzahn said. “But, really, us being urgent, our communication, getting lined up and running the play, can be a lot more effective.”
Auburn’s shuffling on offense didn’t help. The Tigers used a variety of players in Saturday’s game, still trying to find the right personnel for situations. Malzahn would prefer to keep the same group on the field at all times to prevent defenses from reacting and substituting accordingly, but he acknowledged his team’s limitations.
“That’s where we’re at as a program,” he said. “Ideally, you’d keep 11 guys on the field that can do every formation you need. But, right now, we’re not there yet. We’ve got to play different people to go to their strengths. Each year, we should be more effective in keeping 11 guys on the field with all the formations.”
There were other mitigating circumstances. Some players thought they could have gone faster if they had a little cooperation.
“We were ready,” guard Byron Isom said. “I felt like it was the referee. He was standing over the ball holding us back a lot. We just have to get up there quicker and get set up quicker, so we’re ready to go.”
Others said it was hard to break old habits.
“A problem that a couple of us have is we’re supposed to give the ball to the ref,” running back Ben Tate said. “Sometimes you forget. It’s just something that you’re not really accustomed to. The last three or four years guys have been here, you just lay the ball on the ground.”
Malzahn had little sympathy. “It shouldn’t be (a problem),” he said. “We’ve been coaching that since we’ve been here. We’re very precise on our expectations. We’ve got to do a better job in those areas.”
Still others think further conditioning will help.
“It’s hard, especially with us being a little thin up front,” right tackle Andrew McCain said. “At practice, they’ve been trying to not kill us. At the same time, there’s a fine line between keeping guys healthy and making sure we’re in shape enough to run 85 or 90 plays.”
Despite those minor concerns from Week 1, Auburn plans to go faster as the season progresses because of the problems it creates for opposing defenses.
“Everybody doesn’t have problems against a faster paced offense, but, if you do, it’s usually because you get lost in the details of your defense,” Chizik said. “Because you are so busy trying to get everybody lined up, and, mentally, your players are thinking ‘My goodness, by the time I get back, they are ready to snap the ball again.’
“And after a quarter and a half, two quarters of that, I think it starts to wear on people mentally.”