For most of his career, time of possession has been one of those useless statistics that Gus Malzahn barely even knew existed.
He counted plays, yards and points.
The more, the better.
When one played ended, he wanted his offense over the ball and ready to snap it again.
There was no such thing as playing too fast.
But as Auburn heads to No. 1 LSU on Saturday, the Tigers do so with a markedly different offensive philosophy than Malzahn has preached in the past.
“We’re just trying to do whatever helps our team win and trying to control the clock a little bit more, get some first downs and win the time of possession,” said Malzahn, in his third season as Auburn’s offensive coordinator.
“It’s been different. But at the same time, we’re trying to do whatever gives our team the best chance to be successful. With the pieces of the puzzle we’ve lost, added to the injuries, that’s what we need to be doing.”
Last season, Auburn averaged 41.2 points and 499.2 yards per game with Cam Newton running and passing his way to the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers finished in the top 10 nationally in both categories en route to winning the national championship.
In 2009, Malzahn’s first season on the Plains, the Tigers averaged 33.3 points and 431.8 yards per game and finished in the top 20 nationally in both categories.
Through seven games this season, Auburn is averaging 26.3 points and 360.9 yards per game, ranking the Tigers eighth in the SEC in both categories.
But the most important statistic is that they’ve found a way to carve out a 5-2 record despite a lack of production at quarterback, injuries to their two best receivers (Emory Blake and Trovon Reed), and most recently, an injury to their most consistent offensive lineman (guard Jared Cooper).
“We’re going through some growing pains, but our job is to figure out a way to score points,” Malzahn said. “It’s just one of those years where we’ve got to find a way for these younger guys to grow up in a hurry.”
Malzahn’s offenses have always been able to run the ball, and the Tigers are leaning on the running game more than ever this season. They’re third in the SEC in rushing, averaging 197 yards per game, and sophomore running back Michael Dyer has already carried the ball 147 times for 752 yards.
Only South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore has carried it more (163 times) in the SEC, but Lattimore is out for the season with a knee injury.
In the past couple of games, defenses have really started to stack the line of scrimmage to stop Auburn’s running game.
That’s because Auburn hasn’t been much of a threat to throw the ball. The Tigers are ranked 106th nationally in passing offense, averaging just 163.9 yards per game.
In the 17-6 win against Florida last week, they threw it just 16 times. That’s not going to cut it against LSU’s defense, even with the suspensions of cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon.
“One thing we’ve got to do is throw the ball vertically down the field better than we have,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “It’s apparent that people have been loading everybody up inside right now because of our wide receiver situation.”
“Our challenge has been manufacturing some passing yards when they’re daring you to throw the football,” Malzahn said. “Clint gave us a shot in the arm (against Florida). When things break down and everything is out of timing, that’s when I feel like he’s at his best. He can make some plays when things break down.”
The Tigers will also keep working true freshman Kiehl Frazier into the equation. He’s been their quarterback in the Wildcat formation, but Malzahn also wants to give him more opportunities to throw.
The best thing Auburn has going for it is its penchant for winning close games. The Tigers have never lost under Chizik in games decided by eight points or less.
“The last two years, we’ve won so many close games, and coach Chizik does a great job of leading our group,” Malzahn said. “If we can keep it close, our guys really believe they can win. That’s carried over to this year, and we’ve needed it.”