You know Gus wants to.
Gus Malzahn wants to run the dang football.
That desire emanates from his bones. It is the essence of who he is as a football coach. Auburn has ranked outside the top 25 nationally in rushing attempts just once in his seven seasons as head coach. It currently ranks 19th nationally averaging nearly 45 per game.
“We’re a run, play-action team,” Malzahn said last month and also countless times before that. “We need to be effective running the football.”
That won’t change in the 124th edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry on Saturday, no matter how good Georgia’s run defense is.
“You can’t be one-dimensional,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “For us to be successful, we’re going to have to run the football effectively. That’s really how we’re built anyway. That’ll be a really good matchup to watch. And we’ll see what happens.”
Believe it or not — I had to double-check, to be honest — Auburn has more rushing attempts this season (401) than does Georgia (348). For all that, the Tigers are only rushing for about four more yards per game than the Dawgs, because Georgia’s rushing average is more than half-a-yard per carry higher.
Checking the game log for Auburn’s rushing offense, there’s a noticeable slide over the past few games, interrupted only by moveable object that is Arkansas’ defense. There might be a reason for that.
… Kerryon Johnson, who torched the Bulldogs for 233 total yards and a touchdown in 2017, was replaced by JaTarvious Whitlow. Whitlow has been dealing with a knee injury and didn’t play against Ole Miss. His absence has been filled by true freshman D.J. Williams…
With a Malzahn offense, you can expect to see the ball being run downhill with two other plays mixed in. With the Tigers missing their lead back as of last weekend, they will presumably rely on yet another true freshman in D.J. Williams. How big of a difference will it make if Whitlow is unable to go?
“A big difference. He’s a stud SEC back,” said Smart. “He’s physical; he’s hard to bring down. He makes their run game tick because their run game is meant to be powerful, downhill and bruising. The young kid has come in and done a good job of that, but Whitlow is a difference-maker for them.”
D. J. Williams has put up great numbers while filling in for Whitlow. The freshman has rushed for 303 yards in four games this season, with 130 and 93 yards coming against LSU and Ole Miss, respectively.
So Auburn comes into the game with a true freshman starter at quarterback and running back. Nix runs the ball seven or eight times a game, enough to keep defenses honest, but in conference play hasn’t really had much of an impact in that regard, other than against Mississippi State.
Malzahn has had more to work with at times, in other words.
You know Kirby would like nothing more than to make Auburn’s offense one-dimensional, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s got the horses to do that.
That 2.77 yards-per-carry mark actually makes this Georgia defense one of the stoutest against the run that a Malzahn offense has ever gone up against. From 2013-18, Auburn faced only four teams that went on to finish the season holding opponents to fewer than 3 yards per rush — Alabama in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and Mississippi State in 2018. The Tigers ran for 91, 66, 168 (plus two scores) and 90 yards in those games, respectively.
The Advertiser notes that Auburn hopes to have a fully healthy Whitlow back this week, which would help, no doubt. It will also be interesting to see if Gus has to resort to some of the other schematic wrinkles suggested in the article — throwing more to set up the run as well as attacking the edge to spread out Georgia’s defense. Should make for an interesting chess match.