Auburn’s defense can’t stop a good offense.
Auburn’s offense can’t win a scoring match against a good offense.
After two weeks off from those realities, they closed in on the 15th-ranked Tigers (4-2, 2-1 SEC) on Saturday against No. 10 Arkansas (5-1, 1-1) and re-opened the question of whether this team has real answers.
“This was a total team loss,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said, reversing his normal assessment of a win. “It wasn’t a guy or side of the ball.”
Starting quarterback Barrett Trotter has clear limitations, and never did they show more than Saturday. He completed just six of 19 passes for 81 yards.
Auburn missed injured receivers Emory Blake and Trovon Reed. It’s hard to see them dropping two perfect passes like DeAngelo Benton did, including a pass that skipped off his hands to Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas for an interception in the fourth quarter.
“Barrett Trotter struggled some tonight, but it wasn’t all Barrett Trotter,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “I want to make that real clear.
“I’ve got four or five drops on the top of my head right now. One of the turnovers should be a catch. You hit a guy in the hands, he’s got to catch the ball.”
Auburn’s offense also self-destructed with penalties, with six holding calls factoring among the Tigers’ 11 penalties for 105 yards.
But how teams defend Trotter is becoming a trend — maximize coverage and make him hold the ball long enough for a minimal rush to close in. Teams can do this because they know Trotter is no threat to run.
Not that he’s incapable. He took off for a first-down run late in the first half Saturday, but he doesn’t look to run when his receivers are covered.
And even when Arkansas walked a safety up after the first quarter, Trotter wasn’t effective.
“They rolled an extra safety down and played a lot of cover 3, and we’ve got to be effective throwing the football,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “We weren’t very effective throwing the football.”
He’s also no threat to run the read option, a staple in Malzahn’s system, hence freshman Kiehl Frazier’s expanding role.
Frazier showed his ability to run and make running backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb more dangerous. He was in on obvious passing downs and converted, including one first-down rush on third-and-8.
The read option with Frazier at quarterback was Auburn’s most consistently effective offense on Saturday. It helped Auburn rush for 291 yards and hold a five-minute edge in possession time.
Dyer, McCalebb and Frazier combined for 257 yards rushing.
But it wasn’t nearly enough, and Frazier showed his limitations. The two times Auburn’s coaching staff trusted him to throw past the line of scrimmage, he threw interceptions — one in the third quarter and one in the fourth.
Both Frazier’s completions on the night were passes caught behind the line of scrimmage.
Frazier’s first interception was a clear example of a young quarterback who’s learning the difference between college and high school games.
“He had a big learning moment in there,” Chizik said. “We had the ‘wheel (route)’ open, and it’s only going to be open in college for a split second. He threw it up there and got picked.
“Those windows in college close quick.”
Malzahn’s offense thrives with a true dual-threat quarterback. Auburn doesn’t have a dual-threat quarterback this season, making the Tigers too easy to defend.
That reality has become painfully obvious for Auburn since the first quarter of the Clemson game, and it doesn’t appear the Tigers have a ready answer. Trotter doesn’t appear ready to run out of the pocket, and Frazier clearly isn’t ready to handle the passing game.
“Whoever our starting quarterback is, we try to build around his strengths,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to be good at what we’re good at.”
Auburn’s defensive woes are an old problem that resurfaced at Arkansas.
The Tigers appeared to have improved since giving up 624 yards at Clemson on Sept. 17, but that improvement came against Florida Atlantic and a South Carolina quarterback at the end of his very, very long rope.
Arkansas is far from FAU, and Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson is no Stephen Garcia.
Auburn tried to blitz Wilson on Saturday, but all too often receivers broke open before the rush had a chance. That had a lot to do with him completing 24 of 36 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns.
Wilson completed 19 passes in a row, the third-longest streak in SEC history.
“We pressured a lot tonight,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Their quarterback made great throws and executed under duress tonight.”
The Razorbacks also rushed for 176 yards, and no one play typified the struggles for Auburn’s defense like Joe Adams’ 92-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Tigers punter Steven Clark had just punted Arkansas down to its 6-yard line. On the ensuing play, the right side of Auburn’s defense got caught out of position.
Adams, a wide receiver, lined up in the backfield. He took a handoff and broke around the Razorbacks’ left end, hurdled one defender and got the one block he needed down field from tight end Chris Gragg.
“We didn’t get and edge set, and we got some guys pinned that didn’t get off blocks,” Roof said. “They had a very talented player that made a great run.”
It’s a return to problems that showed up before the Florida Atlantic game, and it’s an ominous sign for a team that will face Florida and LSU over the next two weeks.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.