For those who went to Auburn on Saturday expecting to see more from new starting quarterback Nick Marshall against Arkansas State, a Sun Belt Conference team, there was some of that.
But the announced Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd of 83,246 ended up seeing a clinic on bend-but-don’t-break defense, and defense kept Malzahn’s former team from making his new team uncomfortable in his second start as Auburn’s head coach.
In what felt more like a Tommy Tuberville Era game, Auburn finally wore down Arkansas State with good old-fashioned handoffs in the second half and beat the defending Sun Belt champions 38-9.
But this early-season showcase of Hurry Up No Huddle teams with Malzahn in common wound up being more about points Arkansas State didn’t score when it had chances, and that has to be the happiest surprise of all for the home fans.
The Auburn team that couldn’t stop anyone a year ago did time and again in the red zone Saturday, and the Tigers got away with a quiet second half from Mr. Marshall.
That’s not to say Marshall went all game manager in his second start as an FBS quarterback. He lit up the joint in the first half, with 198 total yards and two touchdown passes.
He did with his arm, completing 4 of 5 passes on Auburn’s first drive, including the 18-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Davis.
He did it with his arm again in the second quarter, hitting Sammie Coates in stride for a 68-yard touchdown bomb.
In between, Marshall did it with his legs, mounting two big runs on Auburn’s second touchdown drive.
Malzahn and staff gave Marshall a looser leash than he had in the Tigers’ season-opening victory over Washington State, and he showed flashes of the playmaker Auburn fans believe they have.
He also committed his first turnover at Auburn with a third-quarter fumble, but the guy who threw 20 interceptions in one junior-college season in 2012 has not thrown one at Auburn.
It was a net positive for Marshall, but the bigger news was the not-negative for Auburn’s defense.
The Tigers gave up plenty of yards, just no touchdowns.
Arkansas State visited the red zone lots of times, just not the end zone.
It marked the first time since a 17-6 victory over Florida on Oct. 15, 2011, that Auburn didn’t give up a touchdown. Even Alabama A&M and New Mexico State broke the goal line against Auburn a year ago.
On Saturday, Arkansas State’s first four possessions reached the red zone or close to it, resulting in a field goal, two fourth-down stops and a punt. The Tigers stuffed David Oku on fourth down and one from the their 20 in the first quarter and flushed quarterback Adam Kennedy, forcing a rushed throw on fourth down and five from the Auburn 25 in the second.
ASU got inside Auburn’s 5 and recovered a Marshall fumble at the 17 in the third quarter, but both chances melted into field goals.
The Marshall Plan remains on schedule at Auburn, but Auburn’s defense under Ellis Johnson looks ahead of schedule. That ended up being the biggest upset of the night.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.