Peach Bowl: Veteran Auburn O-line lays egg against UCF
ATLANTA – Gus Malzahn never could solve the problem of his offensive line getting manhandled by undersized and historically under-producing Central Florida defense.
In a surprising 34-27 loss in the Peach Bowl on Monday afternoon, Malzahn didn’t have an answer early on, at halftime or in the post-game media conference about the failures at the line of scrimmage.
“We had a tough time. There’s no doubt about that,” Malzahn said shaking his head in confusion Monday evening. “Had some miscommunication on some things right there that wasn’t good, and we didn’t do a good job protecting (the quarterback).”
UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who lost his hand in an accident as a youth, said in the post-game news conference that it felt like the Knights’ defense “got a thousand sacks and must have done something right.” Based on what he saw for nearly all of the 34:15 that Auburn had the football, it’s somewhat questionable whether Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham would argue with Griffin’s sack total.
“We felt like it was nothing that they were doing specifically – it was all self-inflicted,” Stidham said. “We just challenged each other to come out and play a much better second half, which I think we did at times, but we did not execute the way we should have. A lot of that is on me – I turned it over three times.”
The last time Malzahn had seen his offensive line get effectively blitzed, literally and figuratively, was the 14-6 loss at Clemson on Sept. 9 when he watch Stidham go down 11 times. UCF’s six sacks on Stidham on New Year’s Day marked a single-game high for the Knights (13-0) as they constantly made the Auburn quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing Stidham into three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) while almost always on the move.
“Listen, I had some crackpot dynamite reporter from Auburn at the first press conference ask me who’s the best pass rusher you’ve ever played against and how are you going to stop whoever,” UCF head coach Scott Frost said. “This is the best pass rush that offense has played against. This guy (Griffin) is unbelievable.”
Auburn’s offensive line had six seniors play in their final college game and look overmatched, confused and rattled nearly all game long against a non-Power 5 Conference program that they were expected to physically dominate. Austin Golson, who is one of those seniors, said after the loss that communication breakdowns happened constantly in a first half where the Tigers (10-4) only mustered 45 yards on 26 rushes in a first half that saw UCF ahead 13-6 after 30 minutes of play.
The loss to UCF, which is Auburn’s fourth straight January bowl loss under Malzahn represented just the fifth time that Auburn has failed to rush for 100 yards while under his watchful eye.
Golson said Auburn “looked like a team that hadn’t played together” after the Prattville native was part of an offensive line that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s best blocking group.
“I really think it was all us,” Golson said following his final college game. “We weren’t communicating well. That’s really all there is to it. Obviously, it hurts. They outplayed us in the first half for sure.”
The offseason for Auburn offensive line coach Herb Hand essentially begins right now as the employment contract for the second-year assistant coach ended on the day of Auburn’s bowl game (Jan. 1, 2018). Malzahn said two weeks ago at a Peach Bowl news conference at Auburn’s facility that “Herb will be back next season” but Auburn officials haven’t announced any new contracts for assistant coaches following Malzahn’s reported seven-year, $49 million contract agreed to shortly after the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
“Any time you don’t do a good job protecting your quarterback, that makes things extremely tough,” Malzahn said. “And added to the fact that we had trouble running the football. (Griffin) is a dynamic player. He’s very good. I was very impressed.”