Auburn University

That explosive running game Auburn fans are used to is still hiding somewhere

Auburn running back JaTarvious Whitlow (28) gets into the open field against Arkansas during the first half of thier game Saturday in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn running back JaTarvious Whitlow (28) gets into the open field against Arkansas during the first half of thier game Saturday in Auburn, Ala. AP

After his team crushed yet another opponent – or, more accurately – helpless victim, Alabama head coach Nick Saban requested/demanded the media to start reporting on the Crimson Tide’s flaws.

The Tide didn’t give critics much to work with after overwhelming Texas A&M 45-23. Well, they failed to score 50 points, so there’s that. They probably wouldn’t finish higher than third in the NFC East.

For the rest of college football, the flaws are starting to get exposed. In Auburn’s case, it’s more confirmation of fears rather than exposure. We’ve suspected that the running game – with a rebuilt offensive line and the loss of Kerryon Johnson – would struggle.

But a dismal offensive showing in the Tigers’ 34-3 win over Arkansas showed just how much work remains to be done. First of all, the running game is even worse than anyone thought it would be. Secondly, the offensive struggles aren’t limited to running the football.

Fixing the offense is what will determine the difference between excellence and mediocrity.

A truly special performance by the special teams and more solid work by the defense resulted in a distorted final score. Take any win how you can get it, especially in the SEC, and especially after coming off a demoralizing home loss to LSU. But the big plays on defense and special teams masked an inept showing by the offense. The Tigers did not put together a scoring drive of more than 27 yards until the opening of the fourth quarter, when they drove 72 yards for a touchdown against a drained Arkansas defense. The only other long drive – which ended on a failed fourth down try – was mostly due to a 42-yard pass from Jarrett Stidham to Anthony Schwartz.

“We didn’t do a good job pass protecting and didn’t do a good job running, but I’m not going to sit here and say (it was) all offensive line,” said Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. “I’m the type that likes to look at the overall picture and dissect everything.”

Coaches and players always see more after watching replays.

“It’s the little details, whether it’s taking the right step to get up to this backer or just making sure everybody’s on the same page,” Stidham said. “Those are things we can work on. I think anybody can just get better and better on those things as the season goes.”

JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow, the redshirt freshman who has turned into Auburn’s most dependable back, was not shy about his expectations for the rest of the season.

“We’re going to start rotation back to back and we’re going to be a mean backfield. Just watch,” Whitlow said.

Coaches preach staying focused on the next opponent. For Auburn, that’s Southern Miss at home Saturday. But putting aside all pretense, the players know the schedule. They know what follows Southern Miss. A road game against Mississippi State, and then a grueling November that includes Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama – the latter two on the road.

They might win some of those games with defense and special teams. But they can’t win them all without developing some consistency on offense. That starts with the running game.

“It’s very important,” Whitlow said. “We’re just going to have to lock in and we’re going to have to put on our big boy pants and show what we got. They’re already saying that we don’t have a rush game. We’re just going to have to show them what we’re really going to do. I know we’ve got a mean backfield. I know we’ve got players who are going to make plays and build each other up.”

Even Malzahn seemed to be mindful of the schedule.

“I’ve been saying for four weeks we’ve got to run the football better. That’s just part of it. I feel like before it’s all said and done we will. But it’s got to be quicker, sooner rather than later.”

Guerry Clegg is a freelance writer who began covering sports for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in 1985.

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