AUBURN, Ala. — Just over a month ago, Rhett Lashlee couldn’t mask his irritation.
Auburn’s offensive coordinator publicly called out his unit, saying the number of times the Tigers had fumbled the ball was “not to our standard, even (on) the plays that we don't turn the football over.”
It appears the offense got the message.
In the five games since Lashlee made those comments Sept. 29, Auburn has seen its ball security improve. No, it hasn’t improved immensely. But it’s progress nonetheless.
At the time Lashlee lashed out, the offense had put the ball on the ground 12 times in four games, losing four. Five games later, the Tigers have dropped the ball another eight times. Still, Auburn’s incredible recovery rate endures, as only three were recovered by an opponent.
The numbers don’t lie; while the Tigers rank 117th in Division I in fumbles (20), they are 20th in fumbles lost, clocking in at 35 percent (seven of 20). No position group has had a bigger hand in these gains than the Tigers’ tailbacks.
“That’s four games in a row now that our backs have not fumbled the football,” Lashlee said after the team’s 35-17 victory over Arkansas. “That’s big. We’ve started cleaning that up.”
Tre Mason, who has carried the ball 125 consecutive times without a fumble, said there hasn’t been a secret formula. It’s common sense, he said.
“That's the key to winning: ball security,” said Mason, who is leading the SEC this season with 13 rushing touchdowns. “You can't put the ball on the ground. You can't have turnovers. That leads to giving the other team an opportunity to get ahead and we can't have that.”
But what happens when you do give the ball away?
“The coaches will get you after practice,” he said. “They're going to take care of that issue. I try to stay out of that and hold on to the ball tight.”
Nick Marshall hasn’t been quite as fortunate. Arguably the biggest culprit in Auburn’s fumbling follies, the quarterback has been separated from the ball nine times this season — at least once in every game he’s played aside from Florida Atlantic, where he played only one quarter — with four resulting in turnovers. Not surprisingly, he’s become well-acquainted with the term “accountabilities,” the team’s code name for “punishment,” during practice. He did so as recently as Sunday, as he lost his grip on the football at the end of a 28-yard run last week after an Arkansas defender’s helmet his Marshall’s elbow.
“Every 10 (-yard line), I had to do 10 crunches, then to the 50 and back, then do it again,” the Georgia native said of his penance. “I had to do every 10 (-yard line) and then do 10 squat jumps."
That fumble aside, Lashlee said it was one of Marshall’s “better ball-security games.” The discipline was necessary, the coach said, especially if the Razorbacks had recovered at that juncture of the game.
However, Lashlee didn’t downplay the importance of Marshall being able to cover for his own miscue.
“That could have been pivotal,” he said. “If they get that, it’s an 11-point game, all the momentum has switched in their favor. We get a (long) run and then we fumble it back? Fortunately, (receiver) Trovon Reed went diving in there and kind of kept it alive. To the kid’s credit, Nick got it back — probably because he didn’t want to come to the sideline without it.”
He’s gotten all too accustomed to people trying to knock the ball away as it is. Not a practice goes by that a teammate isn’t doing his best to slap the ball out of his hands. Marshall was quick to note he didn’t fumble it a single time during last week’s practices.
Of course, he admitted, none of that mattered the second the ball slipped away during the game.
Securing the football is a simple concept, after all. Marshall’s task now is to translate the perfection he exhibits on the practice field to a live game.
If he does that, he knows the chances for the Tigers’ dream season continuing increase substantially.
“If you don't put the ball on the ground and don't turn it over,” he said, “there's more chance that you'll win the game.”