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Auburn Tigers show signs of promise — and concern, in running game against Tulane

‘We can’t turn the ball over’: Gus Malzahn reacts to Auburn’s turnover problems in Tulane win

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was not pleased with the Tigers' turnover struggles in their 24-6 win over Tulane. Boobee Whitlow fumbled three times and the Tigers lost two turnovers.
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Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was not pleased with the Tigers' turnover struggles in their 24-6 win over Tulane. Boobee Whitlow fumbled three times and the Tigers lost two turnovers.

With around 12 minutes left in Auburn’s game against Tulane, Tigers quarterback Bo Nix split out and lined up as a receiver. Running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow lined up at quarterback in the wildcat formation. Whitlow signaled to Nix, and the latter took off on a b-line to his “quarterback.”

Whitlow took the snap and faked the handoff to the in-motion Nix. From Tulane’s angle, the fake must have looked mighty convincing, because at least two-thirds of the defense bit on it. That, or the Green Wave had secret film of Nix receiving the handoff.

All that to say, the sequence was a far cry from what fans inside Jordan-Hare Stadium saw in the first half.

The Tigers actually ran that same play more than once in the second half; Whitlow scored from 14 yards out one of the times it was called. Yes, the defense bit on the fake, just as hard.

Auburn ultimately won 24-6, and Saturday night’s home opener offered signs of promise — and concern — regarding the Tigers’ run game.

But let’s go back to that first half.

The Tigers found little success on the ground. Much of that credit can probably be handed to Tulane’s front seven, arguably the team’s greatest strength (and Tulane is no pushover). The Green Wave held Auburn to 20 rushing yards in the game’s first two quarters. Auburn’s leading rusher, Whitlow, had eight of them. Kam Martin and Eli Stove combined for nine yards.

Tulane stacked the box in the first half, to great success.

“They were playing with eight in the box,” Auburn right tackle Jack Driscoll said. “That’s three guys unblocked. They were really pressuring.”

Tulane brought extra blitzers on most plays. Sometimes a linebacker or two would crash the line of scrimmage. Other times, a cornerback would blitz.

“I thought we were doing a great job at the front,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “I thought we did an excellent job at stopping their run game. Our guys up front were doing a nice job, we were fitting well. We were playing fast and physical.”

Driscoll said the Green Wave wanted to force Nix to throw. That goal was accomplished..

The Tigers’ struggles on the ground clearly had an effect on head coach Gus Malzahn’s play calling: Bo Nix threw 29 passes in the first half, for 174 yards. 31 of those yards came on a touchdown pass to Will Hastings.

“That’s not good when your quarterback has to throw it 29 times (in a half),” Malzahn said.

The second half brought a much different story: Malzahn was determined to pound the ball between the tackles.

Whitlow finished with 23 carries. Kam Martin finished with 10. Even backup quarterback Joey Gatewood got in on the action with several read-option runs late in the fourth quarter, to put the game to bed. Auburn finished with 172 total rushing yards on 45 combined carries.

Starting after halftime, the Tigers ran more wildcat plays and veered away from the power, up-the-middle approach they tried in the first half. They attacked the outside, and their only rushing touchdown was the aforementioned outside run by Whitlow.

The running game opened up the passing game. With the Tigers running the ball better in the second half, those creeping Tulane safeties and cornerbacks could not crash the box as much. It was by no means a perfect outing for Nix, but it didn’t need to be.

Nix finished with 207 passing yards and one touchdown in his first start inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The running game, though, is still a work in progress, and must improve before the Tigers travel to Kyle Field to face Texas A&M. They’ve got Kent State first, which should be less of a challenge than Tulane, but the run game has to get more consistent.

Whitlow fumbled three times, two of which the Green Wave recovered. The interior of the Tigers’ offensive line struggled to get much of a push, especially in the first half. Most of that was due to Tulane crashing the box, but if Tulane can do it, teams like Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama definitely can as well.

“We need to do a better job of running the ball on first down regardless of scheme,” Malzahn said. “When we are able to do that, we get in a rhythm. I think you saw that in the second half, and you didn’t see it in the first half.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.