AUBURN, Ala. — It doesn’t matter if Nick Marshall plays Saturday.
Facing an opponent that has lost in Western Carolina that has dropped 31 consecutive contests against Division I opponents (of both the FBS and FCS variety), Auburn won't necessarily need the services of its starting quarterback to win its homecoming contest. And it's likely Marshall's status won't be known until the Tigers take the field Saturday afternoon, with head coach Gus Malzahn revealing little about the health of his junior signal-caller, who injured his knee in the fourth quarter of last week's game versus Ole Miss.
So what would it mean if Marshall takes a pass on this week's game? What if Jonathan Wallace or Jeremy Johnson is the quarterback who spurs Auburn to a victory this weekend?
To put it succinctly: nothing.
Marshall has done enough in the first five games of the season — en route to leading Auburn to a 4-1 record — that his teammates’ faith in him is unquestioned. Yes, it took some time. Say, all of three games. As has been retold countless times by now, Marshall predicted exactly how the end of Mississippi State game on Sept. 14 would play out. Trailing 20-17 late in the fourth quarter, he asked the defense to get a stop, with the promise of scoring a game-winning touchdown in return.
In just 1:46, he proved himself prophetic, moving the Tigers 88 yards and hitting a leaping C.J. Uzomah in the end zone for the go-ahead 11-yard score.
Of course, in the weeks that followed, what has been remembered most is the drive itself — and deservedly so. But it’s the vocal leadership that predated the final possession that has resonated just as much.
Making his voice ring in his teammates’ ears constantly is still a work in progress, but Malzahn has been thrilled with what he’s seen from Marshall thus far.
“He comes to practice and practices hard every day, he’s got a great attitude, he’s very coachable and his teammates respect that,” Auburn’s head coach said. “He’s earned their respect and really trust in a short period of time.”
While Malzahn considers the signal-caller more of a “quiet guy,” fellow junior Tre Mason has seen a different side of Marshall away from the field.
“We just joke around a lot — me, Greg (Robinson), Quan (Bray), Ricardo (Louis),” he said. “Those are my guys I hang around a lot. We love to crack jokes on each other make fun of each other. That's the Nick I know.”
Marshall has shown he knows when to flip the switch and transform into the level-headed, stern leader of the entire team, though. Dee Ford could vouch for that. The senior defensive end spoke with Marshall moments after last week’s 30-22 win against Ole Miss. Marshall had keyed the victory with his feet, running for a career-best 140 yards on 14 carries. What’s more, two of those rushes were for touchdowns, and eight resulted in first downs. And the name of the player with who he’s been inextricably linked with since he arrived at Auburn — Cam Newton — surfaced again, as Marshall's 100-yard game was the first by a Tiger quarterback since the Heisman Trophy winner did so against Georgia in 2010.
One would think Marshall would be elated, yes?
In his brief postgame chat with the Georgia native, Ford found Marshall to be rather subdued. A bit disappointed, even.
“He told me he still has a long way to go,” Ford said. “So I'm ready to see if he's going to take it to another level.”
Incredibly, Marshall’s thoughts about his own game are right.
As good as he has been thus far, he still has yet to scratch the surface of his potential. As every quarterback must do, he’s trying to find consistency from game to game. He’s had epic passing performances (the 339-yard outing against Mississippi State) and standout rushing efforts (last week). What he hasn’t done, however, is put them together in the same game.
That’s what should scare every team Auburn faces the rest of the season.
Once Marshall finally strikes on the perfect balance between running the ball and throwing it, he — and by extension, Auburn’s offense — will be nearly unstoppable.
Who knows? Marshall might go out this weekend and do just that, throwing for more than 300 yards and adding an additional 100-plus yards on the ground just for good measure.
Just know this: He doesn’t have to do that for Auburn to win Saturday. More importantly, he doesn’t have to do it to win his teammates’ trust.
After all, he won that battle a long time ago.
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