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18 Nov 2013

One Foot Inbounds: The Malzahn Miracle

by Matt Hinton

How much difference can one year make? Even before this season, Auburn fans already had a pretty good grasp of the extremes: Between 2007 and 2012, the Tigers' win total fluctuated by at least three games every year, most dramatically in the leap from 8–5 also-rans in 2009 to 14–0, Cam Newton-fueled national champions in 2010. Only two years later, under the same head coach that led them to the summit, Gene Chizik, the 2012 Tigers made a compelling case as the most inept Auburn team of the modern era, finishing dead last in the SEC in total offense and dropping every conference game by an average of 24 points. By the end, rivals Georgia and Alabama were forced to show considerable mercy to limit the final scores to 38-0 and 49-0, respectively, after leaving the Tigers for dead by halftime. The pink slip that greeted Chizik after the Iron Bowl was a mere formality.

But even Cam Newton himself is no match for the miracle of the 2013 Tigers, in the throes of one of the most dramatic, improbable turnarounds of this or any era. Emphasis on the dramatic: Saturday's indescribable, Hail Mary win over Georgia was the most jaw-dropping moment of a season that has had its share. Once the pandemonium settled down, though, the accomplishment of Chizik's successor, Gus Malzahn, is very clear. One year removed from an 0–8 finish in SEC play, Auburn is 6–1 with three wins over ranked opponents (Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia) and a looming, winner-take-all showdown with Alabama that will decide the West division and likely the conference championship. If the dominoes fall the right way, it might decide who plays for the national championship. One year removed from a revolving door at quarterback, resulting in the worst offense in the league, Malzahn has unearthed another perfect fit for his system in juco transfer Nick Marshall, who is guiding the No. 1 rushing offense and No. 2 total offense in a season dominated by veteran quarterbacks. The Tigers have scored at least 35 points in seven consecutive games. One year removed from utter hopelessness against Alabama, they arrive at the end of the schedule with every conceivable goal within reach.

As with most new coaches, Malzahn has spent most of the season playing with house money, especially after outgunning Texas A&M in College Station. That win made Auburn bowl-eligible, which would have qualified as a successful turnaround even if nothing went right from that point on. The next two weeks offer no such luxury: In this case, winner-take-all means exactly that. (As if the Iron Bowl has ever meant anything less.) The Tigers don't have to appeal to "pride," or spoiling Alabama's perfect season, or the inherent emotional stakes of a rivalry. After Saturday, the stakes on November 30 are as tangible as they can possibly be. The only question now is whether they've come far enough, fast enough to close the circle with a win.

TOE DRAGS

  • Playing without its leading receiver and top two tailbacks, Baylor still finished with 340 yards rushing and 335 passing against Texas Tech, the fifth time this season the Bears have eclipsed 300 yards by ground and air in the same game. Through nine games, they remain on pace to shatter the FBS record for total offense at 684 yards per game, which is especially impressive when you consider how balanced this Baylor attack is compared to the pass-happy offenses that occupy the top of that list:

    With a strong finish from the ground game, the Bears have a realistic shot of becoming the first offense ever to average 300/300 over a full season.

  • Based on the latest BCS standings, Baylor also has a realistic chance of leaping Ohio State into the on-deck circle for the national championship game if one of the two frontrunners, Alabama and Florida State, happens to suffer an egregious, inexplicable lapse over the next three weeks. Although Ohio State managed to hold off the Bears for another week, the margin between the Buckeyes at No. 3 and Baylor at No. 4 is a barely perceptible .0013 points – easily small enough for Baylor to overcome with a win this weekend at No. 9 Oklahoma State. The computer polls have already vaulted the Bears to No. 3, at the same time dropping Ohio State to No. 5. If the human pollsters are impressed enough by a win over the Cowboys (which they will be), the gap in those polls will close, the Buckeyes and Bears will swap places and the latter will commence praying for a meteor to strike Tuscaloosa or Tallahassee.
  • No team, not even Georgia, has endured a run of soul-crushing twists quite like the one in progress at Northwestern. Since a 4–0 start in September, the Wildcats have dropped six in a row in consistently devastating fashion, blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State, losing to Iowa in overtime and watching Nebraska come down with a desperate, Hail Mary heave as time expired. Saturday, they descended into even greater depths against Michigan, losing in triple overtime despite holding the Wolverines without a touchdown in regulation. The most impressive play of the day by either offense came with Northwestern leading, 9–6, and Michigan scrambling for a tying field goal as the clock ticked down. Somehow, without a timeout, the Wolverines got the offense off the field, the field goal team on, the snap off and the kick up in a span of eleven seconds to extend the game. Not that Michigan suddenly has its act together: Since setting the school record for total offense on Oct. 19 with 751 yards against Indiana, the Wolverines have a grand total of 708 yards in their last three games combined.
  • Oregon QB Marcus Mariota had three touchdown passes without an interception in the Ducks' win over Utah, extending his interception-free streak to 356 passes and counting dating back to last November. That puts him in rare company: The only FBS quarterback to finish a full season without an interception in at least 150 attempts is Virginia's Matt Blundin, in 1991. Since 2000, the gold standard for interception rate belongs to N.C. State's Russell Wilson, who was picked off just once in 275 attempts in 2008.
  • Duke – which, remember, is Duke – beat Miami Saturday, 48–30, for its sixth consecutive win, leaving the Blue Devils in sole possession of first place in the ACC's Coastal division with two games to play and head-to-head tiebreakers over both Miami and Virginia Tech. Take a few minutes if necessary to let that sink in. At 8–2, Duke is ranked in the AP poll this week for the first time since 1994, which is also the last time it won eight games in a season or finished with a winning record, period. But this division is far too tightly packed to begin engraving the headstone of the team that has to play Florida State in the ACC championship game just yet: If Duke loses to North Carolina, Miami wins its last two against Virginia and Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech beats Virginia, the Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Hurricanes and Hokies will join Georgia Tech in an unwieldy, five-way tie for the Coastal crown.

HONOR ROLL

ANDRE WILLIAMS • RB, Boston College. Saturday was a banner day for over-the-top rushing numbers, from coast to coast: Six FBS offenses ran for at least 400 yards as a team, and six different backs racked up at least 200 on the ground as individuals. At the top of any list, though, there's Williams, who set a school record with 339 yards on 8.1 per carry against N.C. State, the best single-game total by any FBS back this season. With that, Williams extended his national lead for yards and carries per game, putting him on pace for the third-best rushing season in I-A/FBS history behind only Barry Sanders (2,628 yards in 1988) and Kevin Smith (2,567 in 2007).

Oh, and with its sixth win, Boston College is bowl-eligible under first-year coach Steve Addazio, just one year removed from a rock-bottom, 2–10 debacle.

ED ORGERON • Interim Coach, USC. When he agreed to step in for his old boss, Lane Kiffin, after Kiffin was unceremoniously ditched at LAX in September, Orgeron was the last guy on anyone's list of long-term replacements: His only previous stint as a head coach was a start-to-finish disaster at Ole Miss, and he was a key part of the unfolding disaster under Kiffin. But the difference between the team he inherited and the one that upset Stanford on Saturday night couldn't be more stark – despite the sense of apathy that accompanied Orgeron's promotion, and the avalanche of injuries that followed, the Trojans are 5–1 post-Kiffin and suddenly looking like the legitimate contenders in the Pac-12 South that they're supposed to be.

The crowning moment of the turnaround (and of Orgeron's head-coaching career to date) came Saturday with 1:23 to play in a tie game, on a risky 4th-and-2 call from the Stanford 48-yard line. After a strong first half, USC had been shut out to that point in the second; if the conversion failed, the Cardinal would get the ball back with plenty of time to move 25 yards for a winning field goal. Instead, the Trojans played for the win, converted on a quick slant from Cody Kessler to Marqise Lee and subsequently sealed the upset on a 47-yard kick by Andre Heidari. Afterward, Coach O led the band in the "Victory March," clearly relishing the moment while he still has the chance. But it's looking less likely by the week that it will be his last.

RYAN SWITZER • WR/KR, North Carolina Switzer returned not one but two punts for touchdowns against Pittsburgh, a feat that was all the more dramatic under the circumstances: After falling behind 27–3 early in the third quarter, Pitt rallied for 24 consecutive points to even the score in the fourth. But the comeback only set the stage for Switzer to turn the tables right back around:

That was all UNC needed to close out its fourth consecutive win on the heels of a dismal, 1–5 start, moving within one game of bowl eligibility despite a season-ending injury to the starting quarterback.

DEMERITS

KEVIN HOGAN • QB, Stanford. Hogan is a smart, efficient quarterback who turned in the worst night of his career at USC, finishing 14-of-25 for 127 yards, zero touchdowns and a pair of killer interceptions in the fourth quarter. The first of those picks (seen below) cost Stanford points in the red zone in a tie game; the second led directly to USC's game-winning field goal. The performance as a whole marked the worst efficiency rating (82.7) of Hogan's career and the first time in 16 career starts he's accounted for more turnovers than touchdowns.

Part of the problem is a giant, windmill throwing motion that will have pro scouts fleeing in terror, on full display against the Trojans on Hogan's first interception:


Another look, frame-by-frame:

An ideal release would go directly from frame two to frame five without the big looping motion in between. Frame four is just ghastly.

SEAN MANNION • QB, Oregon State For most of the year, Mannion has looked like one of the most improved passers in the nation – he currently leads the nation in passing yards and touchdowns – which makes his regression over the last two weeks all the more startling. On Saturday, he was picked off four times at Arizona State, giving him twice as many interceptions in the Beavers' last two games (7) as he had in the first eight games combined. (Two of the INTs against the Sun Devils went to the same player, Robert Nelson, who took one back for a game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.) Since 2011, Mannion has thrown multiple interceptions in eleven of 28 career starts, leaving him with more INTs than any active quarterback with fewer than 1,500 attempts.

INFIGHTING ILLINI. Illinois had many, many problems against Ohio State, but the offense wasn't one: Despite the haplessness of the defense, the Illini managed to generate 420 yards and 35 points, as many as they've scored at any point in their ongoing, 20-game Big Ten losing streak. As usual, though, when things went wrong they went really wrong. In the third quarter, with the score still conceivably within reach at 35–21, starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase left the game for one snap after his helmet came off during a play; in went backup Reilly O'Toole, who was immediately sacked, fumbling the ball into the end zone for a Buckeye safety. It was at this point that head coach Tim Beckman had to be forcibly restrained from assaulting his offensive coordinator.

No shoving, no punches thrown, and after the game everyone said the right things about being caught up in the heat of the moment and "competing," etc. Fine. If the losing streak reaches 21 games Saturday against 1–9 Purdue, Beckman won't have to worry about hiring a new play-caller over the winter, because he won't have a job himself.

OFI TOP 25

1. ALABAMA (10–0).
2. FLORIDA STATE (10–0).
3. BAYLOR (9–0).
4. OHIO STATE (10–0).
5. OREGON (9–1).
6. AUBURN (10–1).
7. MISSOURI (9–1).
8. CLEMSON (9–1).
9. STANFORD (8–2).
10. ARIZONA STATE (8–2).
11. UCLA (8–2).
12. OKLAHOMA STATE (9–1).
13. WISCONSIN (8–2).
14. MICHIGAN STATE (9–1).
15. SOUTH CAROLINA (8–2).
16. TEXAS A&M (8–2).
17. OLE MISS (7–3).
18. LSU (7–3).
19. CENTRAL FLORIDA (8–1).
20. USC (7–3).
21. OKLAHOMA (8–2).
22. FRESNO STATE (9–0).
23. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (10–0).
24. LOUISVILLE (9–1).
25. DUKE (8–2).
– – –
In: USC, Duke.
Out: Texas, Georgia.
Waiting: BYU, Notre Dame, Georgia, Miami, Texas.

LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH

The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.

1. TRENT MURPHY • LB, Stanford
Even in a losing effort, Murphy continued his season-long trail of destruction at USC, finishing with season highs for total tackles (8) and tackles for loss (4) against the Trojans with a forced fumble for good measure. (Two of those TFLs were sacks, moving Murphy into the national lead with 12 sacks for the year.) As a team, the Trojans finished with 23 net rushing yards on 0.9 per carry, their worst effort on the ground in a win since the turn of the century.

2. USC's LINEBACKERS
Not to be outdone, Anthony Sarao, Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey combined for 29 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one interception against the Cardinal, consistently shooting gaps and outmaneuvering blockers despite a huge size disadvantage against the Stanford line. (Pullard checks in at 230 pounds, standard for a college linebacker, but Sarao is listed at 215, and Bailey– who plays a roving linebacker/safety hybrid – at just 200. At one point, Bailey beat Stanford's 310-pound, All-American guard, David Yankey, at the point of attack by diving underneath Yankey's block and wrangling tailback Tyler Gaffney around the ankles for a short loss, all in one fluid, athletic motion.) Against Oregon, the Cardinal dominated on third down, converting 14 of 21 and amassing a 25-minute advantage in time of possession; against USC, they were just 4 of 12 on third down, due mainly to the fact that eight of those attempts left them facing 3rd-and-5 or longer.

3. KAREEM MARTIN • DE, North Carolina
The headliner of UNC's trip to Pittsburgh was Martin's counterpart at Pitt, Aaron Donald, who lived up to his All-America billing with three tackles for loss. On a banner day for gaudy defensive stat lines, though, it was impossible to overshadow Martin's, eight tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, two passes broken up and two QB hurries in a wild Carolina win. Altogether, the Tar Heels finished with a dozen stops in the Pitt backfield (including seven sacks) for a net of –94 yards, leaving Panther QB Tom Savage as the most-sacked quarterback in the nation.

4. RYAN SHAZIER • LB, Ohio State
The defense didn't make any statements at Illinois, but Shazier did, putting All-America teams on notice with 16 tackles, four TFLs, two sacks and a forced fumble that resulted in the divisive safety chronicled above. Shazier ended the game as the Big Ten leader in both solo tackles and tackles for loss, just off his prolific 2012 pace in both categories.

5. ROY PHILON • DT, Louisville
As far as the box score is concerned, the impact of interior linemen is usually more implied than explicit, if it can even be implied. But there was no missing Philon's contribution to the Cardinals' win over Houston, which came to seven tackles, four TFLs and a sack in a 20–13 slugfest. Altogether, Houston managed just 195 yards of total offense, nearly 300 yards below its season average, which goes does as its worst output in any game since a 2003 loss at Michigan. Although the Cougars did not turn the ball over, they managed just 13 first downs and a single play that gained more than 20 yards.

Honorable Mention: Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert had nine tackles and two interceptions against Texas, taking one back for a touchdown in a 38–13 rout over the Longhorns. … Maryland DE Andre Monroe finished with ten tackles and three sacks in the Terps' overtime upset over Virginia Tech … In the same game, Virginia Tech LB Jack Tyler was credited with 11 tackles, two TFLs, three QB hurries and a forced fumble in a losing effort. … Memphis CB Bobby McCain came down with three interceptions against South Florida, taking one back for a touchdown in the Tigers' first ever AAC win. … And while the offense did its thing against Texas Tech, Baylor safety K.J. Morton did his, finishing with nine tackles, three TFLs, four passes broken up, a forced fumble and an interception in a game the Bears controlled from the second quarter on.

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 18 Nov 2013

1 comment, Last at 19 Nov 2013, 6:09pm by NYMike

Comments

1
by NYMike :: Tue, 11/19/2013 - 6:09pm

I'm a little surprised that the Wisconsin Defense doesn't get an honorable mention here, after holding a team that hadn't been shut out in any half since September 2012, held to less than 13 points in a half this year, and held scoreless in only three quarters this season, to 3 points. Indiana's defense defines porous, but the offense has been really good ... until this week.