This is the first of a two-part series analyzing the Auburn football program. Today, beat writer Ryan Black takes a look back at the first four games. Sunday, he will look ahead to the rest of the season.
AUBURN, Ala. — It's a simple exercise.
Ask anyone who has seen Auburn's first four games to say what moment has stuck out most, and an answer should come almost instantaneously: the 88-yard game-winning drive against Mississippi State.
When that drive is pared down even further, it also holds the most noteworthy play of the Tigers' season: Nick Marshall's 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining.
That possession showed Marshall at his best.
The junior quarterback exhibited his mastery of the two-minute offense, completing six of his eight passes on the drive for 66 yards. And when there was nothing to be found through the air, he took off and gained yardage himself, tallying 19 rushing yards.
But the first four games have also provided examples of the signal-caller at his worst.
Forced throws into tight windows, which inevitably led to interceptions.
In Gus Malzahn's estimation, however, Marshall's progression is exactly where the coaching staff expected it would be at this point.
"We feel like he’ll get more comfortable and I think there will be a time in the season that we can say, ‘Hey, it’s clicking,’ and he can play football and not have to think," the coach said. "Hopefully, that time will come sooner, rather than later."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Marshall's oft-lauded running ability has surfaced rarely; in four games, he has just 148 yards on 41 carries with no touchdowns. On the other hand, it's not as if the Tigers' ground attack has suffered, as it has a trio of options in Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant who have proven their merits.
The receiving corps would love to have that kind of stability. Aside from Sammie Coates (and Marcus Davis on the final drive of the Mississippi State contest), Marshall is still trying to develop much-needed chemistry with his pass-catchers.
But before Jaylon Denson's season-ending injury, at least the offense could say it had been able to stay healthy, a far cry from what the Tigers' defense has experienced.
Every week has seemingly brought a new ailment, and each one seems to affect a member of the starting lineup.
That lack of able bodies has gone hand-in-hand with uneven outings, as Auburn is allowing 439.5 yards per game. In the first three weeks, it didn't come back to bite them. LSU wasn't so kind, though, gashing Auburn's defense time and again to hand the visitors its first loss.
Despite the numerous health issues his unit has battled so far, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has kept his head up. If they can just eliminate "trash plays," as he likes to call them, he believes their numbers can drastically improve.
No position group has dealt with more adversity than the defensive backs. Dating back to fall camp, the secondary has seen its ranks continue to thin.
Senior safety Demetruce McNeal, the team's top returning tackler?
Dismissed following a marijuana arrest in fall camp.
Jonathan Jones, the first-in-line backup at cornerback?
Gone for an indefinite period of time after breaking his ankle days before fall camp finished.
Chris Davis, the senior leader of the unit?
Out the past two weeks with a foot injury.
Justin Garrett, the Most Valuable Player of the A-Day Game?
He missed the first two games of the season with a nagging ankle sprain.
So given the circumstances, it's no surprise Johnson was proud of the group's performance in the first third of the season.
"No question, I think they've probably played the best," he said. "We've put a lot of stress on them. We played a lot of man coverage against Washington State. We've played the people like Arkansas State with all these crazy adjustments. They've really probably had — if it's possible to say this — they've probably had more on their back than any other position group, and I think they've played really well."
The third phase of the game hasn't given the coaching staff any headaches. Take away punter Steven Clark's muffed snap last week against LSU — which led to a touchdown one play later — and the special teams have been rock-solid.
Eventually, the Tigers hope to be able to say the same about their offense and defense. Obviously, they want Marshall's airmailed pass attempts to disappear, for the receiving corps to develop consistency and for the defense to morph into a vaunted, stingy unit.
But these things won't change overnight — they never do for any team.
What Auburn has on its side is time. The Tigers have eight more regular season games to iron out their errors. Whether Auburn will find the solutions remains unknown for now.
If it does, however, one thing is certain.
It won't be difficult to discern.