War Eagle Extra

Year in review: Auburn’s defense fights for respect, offense folds down the stretch

Auburn quarterback Sean White walks on the sideline with his arm in a cast and sling in the second half of the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 2, 2017.
Auburn quarterback Sean White walks on the sideline with his arm in a cast and sling in the second half of the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 2, 2017. AP Photo

It isn’t hard for Auburn players to envision a much less successful 2016 season.

Auburn could have easily dropped to 1-3 if there was just one additional second on the clock late in the game against LSU.

Officials waived off what would have been game-winning touchdown from Danny Etling to D.J. Clark. Clark caught the 15-yard pass in the back of the end zone, but replay showed the game clock hitting zero before the snap.

“We started off 1-2 and a lot of you guys saw the LSU game — last second,” Auburn fullback Chandler Cox said leading up to the Sugar Bowl. “Coach Malzahn really hit on it that week, and that was to define our season. After that, we got on a roll.”

It wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Auburn particularly late in the season, but a trip to the Sugar Bowl represented a huge step forward for a program that spent New Year’s at home a year ago.

“When you come from a season like we had last year, at this point we were 6-6 and didn’t know where our future was going and didn’t know if we were going up or down,” Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson said. “We got a good bowl victory last year, and I think that really propelled us through the summer and gave us motivation for this year. Now we’re in, really to me, the second-biggest bowl to the playoffs. That’s tremendous, that’s a huge jump from last year.”

“One of the best in the country”

Kevin Steele made quick work of rebuilding Auburn’s defense to heights not previously seen on the Plains in more than a decade.

Auburn finished the season with a top 10 scoring defense (allowing 17.1 points per game) and Steele deserves plenty of the credit.

“He really developed strong relationships early with our guys,” Malzahn said. “He adapted to them. We didn't really change our terminology. He adapted the terminology that our guys already knew. And I think that made a big impact on our players. And they know that he is in it with them. And they really played extremely hard.”

The highlight reel Auburn’s defense built on the road back to respectability was an impressive one.

The group contained two-time Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson as well as any defense in the country did this season.

During conference play, Auburn’s 56-3 win over Arkansas was one of the program’s most dominating statistical defensive performances in recent history. The Razorbacks’ 25 rushing yards were the fewest by an SEC opponent since 2005 and it was the first time since 2011 the Tigers didn’t allow a touchdown against an SEC opponent.

The defense didn’t allow a touchdown for 10 straight quarters over a three-week period in November, which included a visit to Athens for the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry and a shutout of Alabama A&M.

Auburn’s 55-0 win over Alabama A&M was the program’s first shutout since 2008, an accomplishment players set their sights on weeks earlier.

Steele’s success stops what had been an ongoing carousel of coaches for Auburn on the defensive side of the ball and sets up Auburn well for the future with a core group of impact players — Tre’ Williams, Deshaun Davis, Marlon Davidson, Dontavius Russell, Carlton Davis and Tray Matthews — returning next season.

“It was a tough night at the quarterback position”

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was talking about the Sugar Bowl, but the quote would have been appropriate after a number of losses. The challenges Auburn faced at the position extended beyond a single game, bookending the season in memorable fashion.

After naming sophomore Sean White the starter a week before the season-opener against Clemson, Malzahn rotated all three quarterbacks, including Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III, while mixing in the wildcat package.

It added up to 22 substitutions, but very little offensive production in the 19-13 loss. Auburn’s stagnant offensive performance two weeks later against Texas A&M put the program on the doorstep of a quarterback controversy.

Malzahn turned to Franklin for a “shot in the arm” trailing the Aggies 22-10 going into the fourth quarter. White could only watch as his career record as a starter dropped to 4-5.

While the junior college transfer gave the offense a small spark, helming two extended drives, it wasn’t enough to secure a more prominent role in the offense.

Auburn decided to stick with White as the team’s starting quarterback, a decision that turned out to be the right one. The third-year sophomore completed 77 percent of his passes for 1,104 yards with six touchdowns to one interception as the Tigers reeled off six straight wins.

The quarterback’s inability to stay healthy derailed the win streak and turned into a defining storyline for a second straight season. The Florida native injured his throwing shoulder against Ole Miss, an injury he aggravated in a loss to Georgia.

White hoped the Sugar Bowl would provide him a clean slate in what’s sure to be a competitive battle for the starting job with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham going into next fall. The New Year’s Six game did just the opposite with White breaking his forearm on the opening drive.

“Words can’t really describe it,” White said. “I was really bummed out. You didn’t really believe it. First drive, it’s kind of crazy. Injuries are a part of the game. I’m just going to have to figure out a way to bounce back from it and do whatever I can this offseason to prevent myself from getting injured.”

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra