AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn was livid.
The moment he saw Chris Davis field a punt in the first quarter at the 2-yard line — and then run backward — he couldn’t hide his frustration. But Auburn’s senior corner turned what could have been a costly mistake into the best punt return the Tigers have had in 17 years, gaining 70 yards before finally being brought down.
That play served as a microcosm of Saturday night’s game, as No. 11 Auburn could do no wrong, easing past an overmatched Florida Atlantic squad 45-10.
C.J. Uzomah saw Davis’ return develop right in front of him. More importantly, he was standing only three feet from Malzahn. Thankfully, the junior tight end was more than happy to share the instant change in emotion from his coach as the play unfolded.
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“He was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! He caught it!’” Uzomah said. “Then he was like, ‘Well. All right.’ Then he watched him run. That was one of those deals where he just let a playmaker make a play.”
Davis’ return — which was the longest by a Tiger since Robert Baker’s 79-yard effort versus South Carolina in 1996 — set up Auburn’s second touchdown of the contest, with quarterback Nick Marshall darting into the end zone from 10 yards out to put the hosts ahead 21-0 with 6:54 to go in the first quarter.
Not even an injury to their starting quarterback could do anything to slow down the Tigers (7-1). Marshall left after injuring his shoulder just one play into the second quarter, but no matter; one play later, Jeremy Johnson stepped in and threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates to extend Auburn’s lead to 28-0 with nearly 14 more minutes to play before the half.
Johnson threw half as many touchdown passes Saturday (two) as he did versus Western Carolina (four), when he made his first career start. But it wasn’t as if the Tigers needed the true freshman signal-caller to put up dazzling numbers.
Auburn’s rushing offense took care of that, finishing with 422 yards — more than 120 above its SEC-leading average — and four touchdowns. And no one player had to shoulder too much of the load, as all four scores came from different players (Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Corey Grant). Artis-Payne ended on top in terms of carries (12) and yardage (93).
But as he does nearly every week, Malzahn said none of the success in the running game could have come without the sterling play of the offensive line.
Just how confident were the Tigers in their ground game?
Their first 14 plays were all runs.
“That’s what they were really giving us,” Malzahn said. “Early on you’re kind of in a “feel-out” time.” We knew they had two weeks to prepare and we were trying to gather information that they were giving out to us.”
Malzahn made sure Auburn’s defense received its just due as well. The Owls (2-6) were able to surmount just one touchdown drive Saturday, while they tallied just 247 yards of total offense.
“That group had two weeks to prepare for us and to come up with a plan,” Malzahn said, “and I really felt like our defense played solid, especially after they figured out kind of what their scheme was going to be.”
Dee Ford wasn’t impressed, though. The senior defensive end believes his unit is capable of far better.
In fact, Ford wasn't even sure of the defense’s ceiling.
“Was it a complete game? Not at all,” he said. “We still have a lot of things we can work on. We don’t even know how good we are now, because we played a complete game yet. We’re just going to keep taking that into practice and really trying to get better.”
It was a statement that would have brought joy to Malzahn’s ears had he been on hand to hear it. The coach continues to repeat his mantra of only focus on the next practice, the next game, the next opponent, etc.
He even admitted it sounds like he’s “saying the same thing every week.”
Bland as it may seem, no one can argue with the results it has produced thus far.
“It’s about Arkansas,” Malzahn said of his team’s next matchup, “and it’s about going on the road and trying to play our best football. We’re not worried about all the ‘underdogs’ or ‘favorites.’ That’s our mind-set.”