AUBURN, Ala. — In a way, the Western Carolina game could have been both the best and the worst thing to happen to Nick Marshall.
On one hand, he was able to sit out and continue recovering from a knee injury he suffered during the team's victory against Ole Miss the previous week. On the other hand, it didn't help him that Jeremy Johnson played so well in his place. The true freshman completed 17 of his 21 attempts on Saturday for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Johnson's four scores and 81 percent completion rate are better than any outing Marshall has had this season. No, Johnson didn't run quite as often as Marshall — finishing with 26 yards on three carries — but he didn't need to, since the signal-caller got more than enough help from his teammates, who ran for another 485 yards and five touchdowns.
Gus Malzahn seemed to immediately notice what the performance signified, making sure to reiterate multiple times during his postgame press conference that Marshall is still "our starting quarterback." Of course, he also shot down the thought that a "quarterback controversy" may develop. Why would Malzahn be expected to say anything else?
He is probably correct that a rift won't occur among members of the team, since it would be unusual for them to question the coaching staff's decision. Where Malzahn might have a harder time finding backers is among the fan base. If and when Marshall returns, Tiger supporters will be watching quite closely; at the first sign of struggle for Marshall — especially if it comes in the passing game — there will be calls for Johnson to take the field.
It's hard to tell what will happen if that situation comes to pass.
This much is certain: Through six games, nearly every decision Malzahn has made has paid off.
One of those was starting Johnson in Saturday's 62-3 obliteration of Western Carolina. Yes, the Catamounts are terrible. A team doesn't lose 32 consecutive games against fellow Division I schools by accident. That being said, Auburn's receivers looked as good as they have all season.
Johnson got the ball to them on every kind of play possible. He showed touch on some throws and his lightning-quick release on others. And the Tigers' pass-catchers took advantage, with eight different players hauling in receptions. Half of those were for scores, as Johnson connected with Jay Prosch, Ricardo Louis, Tony Stevens and Quan Bray for touchdowns. The scores were doubly special for the first three in that group, who had never caught a touchdown pass prior to Saturday's game.
While the passing game was good, the Tigers' rushing attack was great. Tre Mason ran for exactly 100 yards and two touchdowns on six carries. He was second to Corey Grant, however, who ran for 133 yards and one score on seven carries. Cameron Artis-Payne and Johnathan Ford found the end zone as well. In short, whoever the Tigers put in the backfield found success. And that's not just bluster — Auburn's average yards per carry backs that up. The Tigers averaged 11.88 yards per carry, the best mark in school history, bettering the 11.14 yards per rush Auburn averaged against Ball State in 2005.
Meanwhile, the defense gave up only three points to Western Carolina. And the Catamounts never came all that close to reaching the end zone, either, as they crossed midfield only twice.
Now let's get to the grades.
The Tigers set a school record with 712 yards (511 rushing, 201 passing) of total offense Saturday. They scored 60-plus points for the first time since 2010. I could keep listing more of their statistics, but the offense's grade shouldn't be hard to deduce.
As noted above, Auburn's defense didn't allow a touchdown for the second time this season, following its 38-9 victory over Arkansas State that saw the visitors net only three field goals. On top of the scoring numbers, the Tigers also had their best outing in the yardage department, giving up 173 yards of total offense. It's the first time Auburn kept an opponent under 200 yards since it held Florida to 194 yards in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
The specialists could have called in sick and the Tigers would have been fine. The Tigers never punted and never attempted a field goal. Cody Parkey simply converted all eight of the extra-points he attempted and had nine of his 10 kickoffs go for touchbacks.
It was a dominant effort in all phases for Auburn, as the game followed the script nearly everyone expected the moment the teams arrived at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers still get credit for not taking its opponent lightly, though, which they had promised wouldn't be an issue in the week leading up to the game.