LITTLE ROCK — Appreciative of access to the inner sanctum, the outsider didn’t say a word. Besides, most of the lecture was in a foreign language and the illustrations on the movie screen were insider football.
That September 2012 day in Jonesboro, I had no idea that the speaker would re-establish Auburn as a national football power in less than 15 months, upstaging Nick Saban in the process.
After two Alabama defenders forgot that option quarterbacks can also throw a forward pass, I retrieved the column about Gus Malzahn’s way of doing things to make certain I remembered correctly and found this sentence about the few things understood from his session with seven wide receivers: “I got … his explanation of how a play one week would set up something in the weeks ahead …”
With that in mind, how many times did Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall read the defense and leave the ball with Tre Mason and then read and keep. In the 81-yard drive just before the half, Mason carried five straight times before Marshall kept for 15 yards to the 1. Fast forward to 2:41 to play and the Tigers’ final possession 65 yards from a tie. It began with Mason for 7, 1, 5, 5, 3, 5, fake to Mason and Marshall to the left. On cue, Alabama zeroed in on Marshall. Oops.
During that afternoon in Jonesboro, Malzahn also said: “To be honest with you, I thought my offense would work in college. I didn’t know. I didn’t tell anybody that. You think it’s going to work but until you do it …”
Count me as a doubter, one who figured the scheme overwhelmed high school teams, then dismissed his success at Tulsa because of the opposition, and credited Cam Newton for the big numbers at Auburn. When Malzahn moved from ASU to Auburn, a Newton-less attack in the mighty SEC figured to be so-so.
Against mighty Alabama, it produced 296 yards rushing. I figured 200 would be the max.
Marshall’s performance — 97 throwing and 99 rushing — makes me think system quarterbacks are not restricted to pass-happy offenses. Remember, too, that the junior college transfer did not arrive on campus until late June and learned the offense on the go.
Because of what I witnessed in Jonesboro, I can promise there were no shortcuts during Marshall’s preparation.
In a small room only a closed door away from the office of ASU’s head coach, Malzahn showed his receivers film of Kodi Burns going in motion and selling a sweep by raising his hands to accept a non-existent pitch. “Little things matter,” Malzahn said. Later, on the field, Malzahn reprimanded a receiver for splitting 4 1/2 yards instead of four with the same three words.
On Saturday night, the brilliant Saban overlooked one little thing and Malzahn didn’t. Alabama stuck with offensive linemen to protect redshirt freshman kicker Adam Griffith for his third field goal attempt of the year — a 57-yarder — and Malzahn picked up on the fact that if the kick was short, Alabama’s lineup only included a couple of players who could tackle.
Return man Chris Davis said as much after his 108-yard return.
Rarely can Saban be second-guessed. About the worst thing that could have happened on a heave into the end zone was for the pass to be knocked down, a tactic that would have been harped on by Auburn coaches in light of the TD two weeks earlier when Georgia went for an interception on Marshall’s deep throw.
Also up for debate is Saban’s decision, based on a lack of confidence in his kicker, to pass on a field goal attempt on fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 13.
The Tigers stuffed T.J. Yeldon. By the fourth quarter, most Alabama opponents are worn down. Not Auburn, which uses 10 defensive linemen.
“Little things matter,” the man said.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.