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Thursday, October 1, 2009
No gimmicks, Malzahn has Tigers flying high

By Chris Low
ESPN.com


Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


For the time being, this will have to do.

It’s not the version of the spread offense Gus Malzahn would like to run at Auburn. It’s not as fast-paced, not as diverse, not as interchangeable.
 
  AP Photo/Dave Martin
  Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has the Tigers running all over their opponents.

“We’re still having to change personnel too much, and that’s slowing us down,” said Malzahn, whose “patchwork” version of his offense is averaging 45.2 points per game, second only to Florida in the SEC, and cranking out 526.2 yards per game, which is tied with the Gators atop the SEC.

Once the Tigers get a chance to further recruit to this offense, you’ll see the real thing.

“It will be different,” Malzahn said. “We’ll be able to do more things, run it the way we want to run it. We’re not there yet.”

Maybe not, but the Tigers (4-0) have been off-the-charts productive offensively four games into Malzahn’s second stint in the SEC as an offensive coordinator.

They’ve gained at least 400 yards of total offense and scored at least 37 points in every game.

Not bad for a “patchwork” version, huh?

“We’ll find out a lot more about where we really are this week,” Malzahn said.

Up next is a Monte Kiffin-led Tennessee defense Saturday night in Neyland Stadium (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) that held Tim Tebow and Florida to 23 points and 323 yards two weeks ago. Tebow got a bunch of those yards by scrambling around and making plays. He was held to 115 yards passing and without a touchdown pass for the first time in 30 games.

“We haven’t faced a defense like this, not even close,” Malzahn said.

Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin says the same thing about Malzahn’s offense and all the different things he makes you defend. Unabashedly, Kiffin said this has been a more difficult week of preparation for the Vols’ defense than Tebow and the Gators two weeks ago.

That’s because Malzahn, according to Kiffin, is willing to do things that nobody else has the guts to do.

“When you look at it, it’s wild and crazy thoughts, kind of like when you were little and playing in the park and you drew them up in the dirt,” Kiffin said admiringly.

“There’s no fear factor of being conservative or not trying things.”

But, then, that’s what makes Malzahn so good.

It was tagged as a gimmick offense when he was coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High School earlier this decade and winning state championships. The SEC got a taste of it in 2006 when he joined the staff at Arkansas, although the Hogs never came close to running his full package.

After the well-documented split with Houston Nutt, Malzahn took Tulsa to the top of the NCAA’s charts in total offense each of the last two seasons.

Now he’s racking up gaudy numbers at Auburn, and the most impressive thing has been how balanced the Tigers have been. They beat West Virginia with Chris Todd throwing four touchdown passes, and they’ve mauled everybody else in the running game thanks to the tandem of Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb.

“We’re going to take what they give us,” said Tate, who’s combining with McCalebb to average 194.2 rushing yards per game. “If we have the numbers, we’re going to run it. If they’re rolling down on guys trying to stop the run, then we’re going to pass it.”

It sounds so simple, but Kiffin said nothing about Malzahn’s offense is remotely simple.

“It’s really hard because guys are going every direction, and what you did all camp doesn’t really help you as you fit runs and normal runs, things you’ve seen for years that most people run,” Kiffin said. “There’s none of that. You’ve got to all of a sudden this week start practicing things our players have seen … maybe never.”

In the last 32 games in which Malzahn has coached, his offenses have produced at least 400 yards in 29 of those contests. The only time Tulsa didn’t hit that mark last season was in the bowl game against East Carolina, and the Golden Hurricane had 399 yards then.

This is exactly what Gene Chizik envisioned when he hired Malzahn in terms of being able to exploit defenses in different ways, but Chizik also knows the real season is about to begin.

“We’ll have to take our game to a new level,” Chizik said.

Given what the Tigers went through offensively a year ago, it’s a level they could only dream about until now.