AUBURN, Ala. — This isn’t about Gus Malzahn.
Nine months ago, the former Arkansas State football coach was lured away by the riches of the Southeastern Conference to the Plains of Auburn, Ala., and Auburn University. Tonight the Red Wolves get a chance to reacquaint themselves with Malzahn in what is the most intriguing matchup of the season for ASU supporters.
But for Arkansas State, this isn’t about the departed coach. It’s not about the reasons he left, the promises he made or the promises he broke.
No, for the Red Wolves, this is about Arkansas State. It’s about opportunity. It’s about building upon the foundation that has given the school more recognition than at any other time.
So when Malzahn and his Tigers meet his former school tonight, it won’t be about the past for the players on the field. It will be about the future and building on what Malzahn helped build himself.
“We’re going there and treating it like any other game,” ASU center Bryce Giddens said. “In order to gain national respect, you’ve got to win the big games that you schedule. We’re on the map, don’t get me wrong, but to get to the top of the charts, you’ve got to win the big games that you schedule and this is one of them. We see this game as that kind of opportunity. It doesn’t matter who the coach is or any of that.”
Arkansas State returns to a venue its become familiar with to face a coach it’s very familiar with this evening. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m.
Tonight’s matchup is the third between the two schools all-time and third since 2006. Auburn leads the series 2-0, including a 52-26 victory when they last met in 2010.
But times have clearly changed since the last time these two played.
Arkansas State has won back-to-back Sun Belt Conference titles and put up two straight 10-win seasons. ASU has watched two head coaches accept its job, win big and move on to the SEC — the second of whom is at the helm of its opponent tonight.
Auburn, which won the national championship in 2010, slipped the following year to 8-5. Malzahn, then offensive coordinator at Auburn, accepted the Arkansas State head coaching job and the Tigers tumbled to 3-9 without him, spurring his hire back last December.
Now their paths cross in a matchup few envisioned would ever occur just a year ago.
For new ASU coach Bryan Harsin, it’s a game he’s heard about since the day he was hired. But the message he’s relayed to his players is to make this game about themselves and what they can achieve rather than anything else.
“We’re worried about taking care of our business this week,” Harsin said. “We’re worried about us, we’re worried about playing to our standards and doing what we do. If we do that, we’ll have an opportunity.”
The Red Wolves are listening, too.
“We have a lot of respect for coach Malzahn,” ASU running back Sirgregory Thornton said. “He did a lot of great things here. It is a unique challenge getting to play them, but we have to be focused and be composed to play our game. We can’t get away from our game just because we’re playing Auburn and Malzahn.”
Arkansas State (1-0) kicked off the Harsin era with a 62-11 pounding of Arkansas-Pine Bluff last Saturday. The Red Wolves rolled up 672 yards offense — second most in school history — on their way to an easy win.
The victory was Arkansas State’s ninth straight, a win streak that is second only to Ohio State’s 13-game unbeaten run. It also caught the attention of their former coach.
“They’re one of the hottest teams in college football,” Malzahn said. “They know how to win and they expect to win.”
Auburn (1-0) started the Malzahn era with a victory in its opener. But the Tigers trailed much of the night, and needed a pair of fourth-quarter defensive stands to preserve a 31-24 win over Washington State.
Malzahn believes a similar effort won’t be good enough against ASU. He should know better than anybody.
“The bottom line is we’re going to have to play better than we did Saturday to beat them,” Malzahn said.
Both teams want to establish the run, then use the passing game to keep their opponent honest.
Arkansas State tied an NCAA record with four players rushing for 100 yards against UAPB. The Red Wolves finished with 509 on the ground, fifth-most in program history.
Auburn rushed for 297 in its win over the Cougars. Junior Corey Grant ran for 146 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run, to lead the Tigers.
Harsin said the battle at the line of scrimmage will likely decide the outcome. Auburn’s defensive line, which returns all four starters and has experienced depth, is a major concern for ASU.
“It comes down to taking care of the football and establishing the line of scrimmage for us, and we’ve got a huge challenge there,” Harsin said. “We’ve got to take advantage of some opportunities outside when we can. Our guys have got to be on point, our quarterback has got to make good decisions, and we’ve got to protect him.”
Arkansas State quarterback Adam Kennedy figures to have his arm put to the test.
Kennedy was 9-of-12 passing for 149 yards and a touchdown in the opener. But with the Red Wolves running the ball with ease, there was no need to have Kennedy pass as much as planned.
Harsin said Kennedy will have to throw it more, and he’ll have to be on target against a secondary the Tigers have confidence in.
“They feel good about their corners and safeties,” Harsin said. “They’ll put those guys out there in some one-on-one matchups, so when we have those opportunities, we have to have good matchups for ourselves.”
Auburn is looking for better quarterback play from junior transfer Nick Marshall, who made his debut against Washington State.
Marshall was just 10-of-19 passing for 99 yards. He also ran nine times for 31 yards, but appeared anxious according to Malzahn.
“We tried to get him off to a good start, but he had jitters, no doubt,” Malzahn said. “But that’s to be expected. He started settling down toward the end of the game and I think that will help him moving forward.”
Auburn will run the same hurry-up, no-huddle offense ASU used last year under Malzahn.
The Tigers had 396 yards offense against Washington State, but weren’t as fluid as Malzahn would prefer. Auburn fumbled three time, losing one, and also had five penalties, including a substitution infraction.
While the Red Wolves have a clear understanding of what Auburn will try offensively, they don’t see it as an advantage.
“It’s really about just doing your assignments,” ASU cornerback Rocky Hayes said. “With our preparation, we’re going to know what’s coming at us. But we’re not trying to slow them down. We’re just going to try to adjust and make plays.”
Individual assignments and matchups aside, Harsin just wants the Red Wolves to be in the right frame of mind.
“It comes back to us,” Harsin said. “If we do the things that we’re supposed to do, we take care of our business, that’s what is going to give us the best opportunity to go in there and have a chance to win.”