Sometimes all you can ask for is a chance, and that’s exactly what the Auburn Tigers had in the last few seconds of their loss to No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night.
With seconds left on the clock, Auburn quarterback Sean White was able to take a few shots into the end zone in an attempt to win the game (with a made extra point after a touchdown). His last throw nearly haunted the dreams of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.
Auburn had a chance, but couldn’t pull it down. Clemson’s defense knocked the ball away, and that was all she wrote on the Plains. Clemson, a heavy favorite to make it back to the College Football Playoff, survived Auburn, 19-13.
That’s the big takeaway for Gus Malzahn’s team. It put quite a scare in Clemson and made the Tigers fight to the very last second. Perhaps most impressive, Auburn was able to hold an extremely explosive Clemson offense to just 19 points.
That Clemson offense scored 38.5 points per game last season, with some of the main players still in place this year. Two of those players performed well on Saturday: Wayne Gallman rushed 30 times for 123 yards and a touchdown, and receiver Mike Williams put up 174 yards (19.3 yards per catch) on nine receptions.
Auburn was able to slow down all-world quarterback Deshaun Watson, though, who’s a sure bet to make it to the Heisman podium this season.
Watson still threw for 248 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 21 yards on 11 carries, but he completed only 19-of-34 passes, and Auburn was able to pick him off.
Auburn’s defense also gave the offense a chance to make those last few game-winning attempts. The Tigers basically shut down Gallman on Clemson’s last drive, when he tried to get a first down and run out the clock. Swinney went for it on fourth down and four instead of taking a field goal attempt, and Gallman was stuffed for only two yards.
“I’m very proud of the defense,” Malzahn said after the game, per Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. “There’s not a whole lot of people holding that offense to 19 points. The positive thing is we played one of the best teams in college football, and we played them down to the end.”
There’s no such thing as a moral victory in college football — especially for Malzahn, who’s definitely on the hot seat — but there are positives Auburn can take away from this loss.
First, all of Auburn’s SEC goals are still ahead of it. This was a non-conference loss against one of the best teams in the nation, which will ultimately be a footnote this season.
What really matters is what Malzahn and his crew do in Week 3 and beyond against SEC opponents.
Can Auburn’s defense lead the way?
Malzahn now knows he can rely on a very good defense while he figures out the ins and outs of what he wants to do on offense. The Tigers played all three quarterbacks on Saturday night and even direct-snapped to running backs, so it was a bit hectic in Auburn’s backfield. Malzahn said that strategy may continue; it was something he knew the Tigers would do heading into the game.
“We went into this thing knowing we were going to play all three,” Malzahn said, via Michael Niziolek of the Ledger-Enquirer. “All three had packages and that was our plan, that’s what we went with — at times, it worked well; at times, we struggled.”
For an offense that has been typically explosive under Malzahn, being able to put up only one touchdown and two field goals is a source of worry — even if it came against a very good Clemson team.
One would imagine that the inconsistency at quarterback played a role in that, but perhaps Malzahn feels he can take a few more risks on offense because his defense will hold the fort.