Auburn’s change at quarterback doesn’t fix a team with many frustrating struggles
There is an old adage: The most popular player on a team is the backup quarterback. He has the name everyone knows and he’s done little to tarnish his luster.
Sean White was the most popular player for Auburn Nation last week.
But after another disappointing Auburn performance, an overall team effort of mediocrity in a 17-9 loss to Mississippi State at Jordan-Hare Stadium, you wonder if Jeremy Johnson is about to get popular again.
White had one devastating interception but was otherwise decent. He was 20-for-28 but averaged less than 10 yards per completion. Said coach Gus Malzahn, “Overall I thought he did a solid job for his first college experience, period.”
But his offensive line let him down, and receivers dropped passes. His coaches put him in some bad positions after putting him in the starting position.
All week long, the story had been Gus Malzahn’s decision to bench starting quarterback Johnson in favor of White, a redshirt freshman.
In mid-August, Johnson was a Heisman candidate and the leader of a popular choice to win the Southeastern Conference and reach the College Football Playoffs. By mid-September, he had been made mortal by Louisville, Jacksonville State and LSU, with six interceptions.
The sidebar to the week was defensive coordinator Will Muschamp benching a number of starters who got sand kicked in their faces by LSU a week earlier. It’s a thin defense not overburdened with talent or experience, but at least you expected some of Muschamp’s swagger to wear off on it – but that hasn’t happened.
On the 13th play of his college career, No. 13 proved the validity of triskaidekaphobia. From the Bulldogs’ 5, White threw an interception, killing a TD drive and sucking the air out of the joint.
After Miss State’s Dak Prescott lived up to all his hype with two TD passes to punctuate 79-yard drives, Auburn managed to foul up something that can’t be pinned on any quarterback.
A fast, efficient drive left put the Tigers third and goal from the 1 and Jeremy Johnson jogged onto the field, Auburn loading up with heavyweights to overpower a tiring Bulldog defense. MSU coach Dan Mullen wisely called a timeout. That gave Malzahn sufficient time to think, overthink, contact a psychic, think some more and then outcoach himself by changing his plan.
Sure Mississippi State would know what was coming. But strength-on-strength from a yard out, and two cracks at it, it’s time for power football, not finesse.
Back into the game goes White, who gets delivered such a high snap he should have signaled for a fair catch. That left Auburn fourth-and-a-whole-bunch, and you knew then you could bet the farm and your first two grandchildren that the ensuing field goal would be missed.
Risking that we are violating federal statutes by repeating network TV commentary without expressed, written consent, ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore quickly pointed out the fallacy in running every snap from a shotgun or even pistol formation. He pounded the same message early in the second half. Take a snap from center, it’s a one-yard plunge behind a couple of 300-pounders.
“We just self-destructed,” Malzahn said at halftime.
No, he simply didn’t make as good a decision in the second quarter as he did on Tuesday.
Three second-half Auburn field goals were barely consolation prizes as Mississippi State conservatively maintained control and tempo. The Tigers’ “still-have-a-chance” onside kick with 1:07 left was just a frustrating tease.
“This team is going to get better, and they’re going to fight,” Malzahn said. The schedule is conducive, at least.
Auburn can regroup in the next three weeks, hosting San Jose State, then traveling to Arkansas and Kentucky, both of which are winnable. But reality sets in again with Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia in successive weeks.
Unless what we saw Saturday is already the reality, a team with uncertainty at quarterback, uncertainty in play calling and uncertainty whether this team qualifies for a bowl, much less the playoffs.