Those help, yes. But what do those numbers mean if they are accumulated in low-pressure situations? Stepping up your level of play when it is needed most is what Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee cares about. That’s why he is glad Nick Marshall is on his side, even though the quarterback ranks only 11th in the SEC in passing efficiency.
Regardless of how he performs over the course of a game — for better or worse — Lashlee and the Tigers have an unshakeable belief that Marshall will lead them to victory when the stakes are highest.
That ability should come in handy Saturday, as the stakes are the highest they've been this season. No. 1 Alabama (11-0) will visit the fourth-ranked Tigers (10-1) with a spot in the SEC Championship Game and, possibly, a shot at the BCS title game on the line.
“He probably couldn't even tell you what he does, other than certain guys are just born with this ability to win and make plays and to elevate the play of others,” Lashlee said. “They can play great the whole game and do it or they can have a bad game, but when it matters, do it. Some guys just have that. So far from what we've seen, he's one of those guys that has that.”
Engaging in self promotion has never been an issue for the junior. Marshall, who was not made available for interviews with reporters this week, says little, preferring to let his play speak for itself. Count that as one more reason Lashlee likes him.
That reverence isn’t just confined to Auburn’s locker room, however.
Lashlee pointed to the win over Georgia as one such example. After each one of his carries against the Bulldogs — which totaled 19 in all — his former teammates helped him up.
Lashlee said he thinks that was done simply because of the respect they hold for Marshall.
“He’s not a guy they were trying to injure or treat poorly,” the coach said. “They were treating him better than they treated anyone else on our team. I know that. That’s just the kind of guy he is. Everybody likes him. He’s a humble guy. He’s a team guy.”
When asked how they got to be 10-1, running back Tre Mason quickly credited Marshall’s dual-threat capabilities as one of the key components of this season’s turnaround.
Fellow junior C.J. Uzomah echoed that sentiment.
“(Opponents) don’t know if he’s going to run it on them for 65 or throw a Hail Mary pass for 70 and just end someone’s season,” he said. “He’s a playmaker, (and) he’s one of the best athletes I’ve seen play quarterback. So it’s been huge in terms of where we’re at as a team and in terms of the receivers and running backs, knowing that if they’re kind of down, he’ll pick them back up and he’ll make plays.”
It’s those attributes that worry Alabama coach Nick Saban. He has watched as much film as he can on Marshall. While Marshall has played well “all year long,” Saban said he has taken it up a few notches in recent weeks. Despite having a roster stacked with NFL-ready talent, Saban has spoken exceptionally highly of Marshall, who he called a “phenomenal athlete.”
“You certainly can't say, 'OK, we're just going to stop this guy running,”' Saban said. “He's made a lot of big plays. He's an especially good deep-ball thrower. That in and of itself creates a lot of issues and a lot of problems if you're a defensive player. I think the guy is one of the most talented guys in our league at his position, even though his style may be a little bit different. Relative to what he does for them in their offense, he's as effective as anybody we've played.”
Teammates vouch that the Georgia native has successfully navigated his most difficult challenge: the balance between being the face of Auburn’s program — at the game’s most prominent position, no less — against fitting in with the rest of the team.
“On the field and off the field, he's a leader. That doesn't change,” Mason said. “He's funny off the field. He's cool. But when we get on the field, it's strictly business, and we've got to figure out ways to execute our offense. That starts with him. We're locked in at practice. He's locked in, and he's getting everybody fired up.”
It’s a stark contrast to when he first arrived in Auburn. Back then, Marshall was still trying to learn how to express himself. Dee Ford recalled their first interaction. Hailing from the small South Georgia community of Pineview, Marshall spoke with a heavy country accent. Not being able to make heads or tails of it, Ford asked the future starting quarterback to repeat himself.
It was all done out of kinship, though, as the senior defensive end was doing his best to help make Marshall’s transition easier.
“I think me and (defensive tackle) Jeffrey (Whitaker) talked to him and just let him know that we wanted to make everything very comfortable for him, because we knew when we saw him throw the ball, that was going to be our quarterback. … He handled everything well," Ford said. "He didn’t force it. He naturally became a leader and took everything one day at a time with the workouts.”
Five months later, Marshall has the Tigers on the verge of the SEC Championship Game.
“He’s definitely produced,” Ford said. “You can’t deny that.”