Nick Marshall walked onto Auburn’s campus as one of the most intriguing figures in the SEC this season.
Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, the nation will find out far more about him.
The tale of Marshall getting kicked off the team as a defensive back at Georgia and finding his way to Auburn via Garden City (Kan.) CC has been told numerous times this season.
Marshall’s quickness, athletic ability and cannon arm made him into somewhat of a man of mystery before the season began. Add to that the opportunity to play for offensive guru Gus Malzahn.
The start to Marshall’s season didn’t go smoothly.
He looked surprisingly uncomfortable during the first half of his Auburn debut in a win over Washington State. The passing game had no rhythm with Marshall going 2-for-8 in the first half. He missed wildly on some open throws. Receivers dropped others.
Then again, perhaps that should be expected when a newcomer who partook in his first practice in August becomes anointed as QB1.
By the second half, Marshall showed some improvement – enough to finish 10-of-19, albeit for 99 yards.
Washington State QB Connor Halliday made his impressions public about what he considered a pedestrian Auburn passing game, saying, “They just don’t have a guy who can throw it.”
Marshall took a step forward the following week against Arkansas State, throwing for 147 yards and 2 TDs. Still, the junior missed open receivers – especially on longer routes.
For much of last week’s Mississippi State game, Marshall looked unprepared for SEC defenses. The Bulldogs made adjustments after allowing 11 first-quarter points. Their gameplan became simple: Take the run game away completely and make Marshall beat us.
It worked. From the second quarter until Auburn got the ball for one final drive, Marshall completed 7 of 15 passes for 118 yards and 2 INTs. Thirty-seven of those yards came on a freak play where Marshall caught a deflected pass and took it up the sideline for a big-gainer.
With Marshall struggling, the Tigers managed just two field goals and trailed State at home in the closing minutes.
However, Marshall made the most of his final chance, methodically moving Auburn down the field.
He completed his first five passes for 55 yards, rushing for 19 more. In just his third career start, Marshall avoided the mistake many young quarterbacks make by not taking unnecessary chances downfield and instead taking what the defense gives.
Then, with the game on the line, Malzahn showed his faith in the maturing quarterback and dialed up his chance to the end-zone. Marshall rewarded the call with a beautifully placed jump-ball to TE C.J. Uzomah, who hauled it in for the game-winning score.
The 12-play, 88-yard drive in the 2-minute offense showed that Marshall has the mental toughness to play in the big moments created by the SEC.
How much of Marshall’s success can be attributed to him and how much blame State should take for getting away from a defensive scheme that created problems for the Tigers remains unclear.
The answer to that debate doesn’t really matter much in the scheme of things. Marshall made the throws he needed to make and showed a cool maturity observers didn’t see during the first half of his wild opener.
Nothing, though, can properly prepare Marshall for the atmosphere he will face Saturday night inside Tiger Stadium – a place where Auburn hasn’t won this century.
Auburn has a national stage this week to prove it has regained national prominence. That won’t be easy against an LSU team hitting on all cylinders.
Despite a potent three-headed run game featuring RBs Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, Auburn will likely not be able to pound the ball against LSU – not unless an offensive line with a lot more strength and talent shows up in Baton Rouge.
That will leave a heavy load on Marshall’s shoulders – and one that likely can’t withstand quarter-long struggles he had against State.
LSU’s offense packs too much punch and Auburn’s defense too many holes to think the visiting Tigers can hold the Bayou Bengals to 20 points. Auburn will have to score to win, meaning Marshall will have to show yet another level of his potential.
The last time a hot-shot new coach walked into Tiger Stadium with something to prove, Gene Chizik’s Auburn team left after a 31-10 beating that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Malzahn called offensive plays that game, but lacked the weaponry to match LSU’s potent defense.
Marshall might be Auburn’s only hope to avoid having history repeat itself.