ATLANTA — At every opportunity, Gus Malzahn makes it a point to remind observers of a particular factoid about Nick Marshall.
The junior quarterback, Auburn’s head coach notes time and again, didn’t have a chance to go through spring practice. It didn’t hinder him too much, however, as Marshall still came out on top of the Tigers’ four-way competition for the starting job in fall camp. But given the scant time he had between setting foot on campus during the last week of June and having to ready himself to start the season opener on Aug. 31, Malzahn said, not surprisingly, his signal-caller’s command of the playbook was lacking.
How much so?
Malzahn said Marshall knew only one-fourth of Auburn’s offensive schemes when he took the field against Washington State.
And look at him now.
“It's really been amazing to watch his progress,” Malzahn said on Friday during his last press conference prior to the SEC Championship game. “You're talking about a guy (that) the very first game knew 25 percent of our offense. He got better each week. He's very unique. He's at his best when the game is on the line. When the pressure is the most, he finds a way to get it done. He's been a lot of fun to coach and a lot of fun to watch.”
Gary Pinkel begged to differ.
“Fun” is the last word Missouri’s coach would use to describe how to defend Marshall.
“Their tailbacks are great players. Their offensive line is good. But I think the offense is at a whole different level when you have Nick Marshall in there. He's a playmaker,” Pinkel said. “We had a guy named Brad Smith that broke records in the Big 12 quite a few years ago (who) plays in the NFL now. He's athletic like Brad is. Being from Columbia, you understand that.”
While Auburn’s passing game has been an afterthought this season due to its dominant rushing attack, Pinkel said that makes it even tougher to contain.
With a defense having to devote nearly all of its attention to Auburn’s backfield, the possibility of getting beat over the top increases exponentially.
“You're trying to cover all this stuff. All of a sudden (Marshall) pulls the ball out, the ball goes downfield,” Pinkel said. “Play-action passing game puts tremendous pressure on your secondary run support and the discipline you have in the back. That in itself is going to be a real challenge for us.”
Malzahn hopes they don’t have to take to the air too often Saturday — after all, he said, he wants to lean on the run-heavy approach that has carried the team to an 11-1 record. Still, he brought up that stopping the run has been one of Missouri’s strengths, as it gives up just 119.1 yards per game and hasn’t allowed more than 184 in any contest.
If Missouri is able to do that Saturday, Malzahn said he wouldn’t worry.
Thank Marshall’s rapid improvement for that.
“He's gotten better each week with his decision-making. He's got a great arm,” Malzahn said. “I really believe if he's called upon, he'll be able to do it.”