By John Zenor
The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn’s offenses have always taken off swiftly upon his arrival at a school, just not quite like what’s happened with the Auburn Tigers.
The eighth-ranked Tigers have been on a three-game offensive tear Auburn couldn’t manage even when Cam Newton was powering the 2010 team to the national championship with Malzahn as offensive coordinator.
Auburn (7-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) has produced one of the program’s 12 highest yardage totals in each of the past three games, averaging 652 yards during the stretch with no Heisman Trophy candidate or big star leading the way. The Tigers, who had never gained 600 yards three times in a season, visit Arkansas (3-5, 0-4) on Saturday.
The Tigers have key additions like quarterback Nick Marshall and tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, but perhaps the biggest newcomer was Malzahn and his hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
“I think guys (are) just playing harder, and actually believing in the coaches and having trust in the coaches,” said tailback Corey Grant, who has gone from benchwarmer to big-play threat in a deep backfield.
The first-year turnaround is nothing new. Malzahn’s offenses as coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn climbed an average of 53 spots in the national rankings in scoring offense, 49 in total yards and 19 in rushing yards in his initial season.
Auburn’s rise has made that look like chump change. The Tigers’ surprising climb into SEC championship contention has been spearheaded by an offense that has jumped 85 spots nationally in scoring, 102 in total and 73 in rushing.
The Tigers struggled badly during a one-season switch to a pro-style offense under coordinator Scot Loeffler, now at Virginia Tech. Now, Malzahn is back, and the numbers are surging again.
“Gus has got an extremely unique package that they’re obviously grasping very, very well,” Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema said. “And they’ve got players that fit into it. I think their execution has gotten better every game.”
Marshall’s passing numbers have only been decent, with six touchdowns against four interceptions.
Malzahn said Tuesday he’s “day to day” for the game with a right, throwing shoulder injury but the quarterback did practice Sunday.
Marshall is a key part of the nation’s fifth-best ground game, with 461 yards and five touchdowns despite missing all of one game and most of another with injuries.
“They’re No. 1 in the SEC in rushing the football,” Bielema said. “He’s a valuable part of that, whether it’s a read-zone or a quarterback run game or he makes the right call on where the ball needs to be handed off. And he’s very efficient. I think he’s gotten better every game. You can see him gaining confidence. That (Texas) A&M game, they were must matching them score for score. That was a pretty impressive game to watch.”
Marshall has plenty of help in the running game.
Tre Mason (753 yards, nine touchdowns), Artis-Payne (510, five) and Grant (451, four) have all played significant roles in the rushing attack. All four of those players, Marshall included, have produced 100-yard games. Only five teams have had four players reach triple digits in a game this season, including Ohio State, Air Force, Minnesota and Arkansas State.
The Tigers have had a pair of 400-yard rushing games for the first time since the Bo Jackson-led 1985 team.
“It’s actually fun, getting in, with the o-line we have and the receivers we have,” Grant said. “I can just break one at any time.”
The offensive renaissance is not just about Marshall and the running backs.
Sammie Coates 25.5-yard average on 21 catches leads the nation. And the offensive line led by center Reese Dismukes and left tackle Greg Robinson has given up only seven sacks, tied with Alabama for second-best in the league behind Arkansas.
“I think each week we have improved in our execution of the run game,” Malzahn said. “The fact that we’ve had three different running backs all do a solid job, our line has done a solid job and then the fact that our quarterbacks have been able to run, too. That has been the biggest factor.”
The Tigers’ 24 rushing touchdowns and 12 passing touchdowns already top last season’s totals in 12 games.
Malzahn said his first-year success at each stop results from a pretty simple formula.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of good players to coach in new situations,” he said. “This situation is no different. Our players have bought into what we’re trying to establish. We’ve got very good coaches that are teachers and the players are responding to them.”
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this report.