QB Curve: Nick Marshall and Auburn, Down But Never Out

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Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.

QB of the Week: Auburn’s Nick Marshall

Typecasting — The Comeback Kid: Marshall has enjoyed a charmed existence as Auburn’s starting quarterback, a two-year run that’s yielded 17 wins, six fourth-quarter comebacks, and one eternal Hail Mary. But it’s not difficult to imagine an entirely different trajectory for Marshall, in which he never donned a Tigers uniform or attempted a collegiate pass. As a high school recruit, Marshall was widely projected as a cornerback, and subsequently spent his freshman campaign on the defensive side of the ball at Georgia before being dismissed along with two other players over an alleged dorm room theft. For most 19-year-olds, that’s where the path to a high-profile football career would begin to splinter.

For Marshall, the louche exit from Athens turned out to be a fortuitous detour. After spending a year at a Kansas junior college, where he made the switch to quarterback, he committed to Auburn sight unseen in January 2013, and immediately found a home in the hurry-up/no-huddle system being installed by the Tigers’ incoming head coach, Gus Malzahn.1 The system fit Marshall’s athleticism like a glove: Outside of the QBs running “true” option schemes at the service academies and Georgia Tech, Marshall was arguably the closest approximation of an old-school, triple-option workhorse in the FBS in 2013 — only four other quarterbacks nationally eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the season — and he once again ranks among the top 10 rushers in the SEC this year in yards per game (77.6) and per carry (6.2).

The irony of last weekend’s crippling, 41-38 loss to Texas A&M, which was sealed by back-to-back fumbles on the Tigers’ final two possessions of the game, is that the offense has been such a consistently well-oiled machine in Marshall’s hands: After racking up nearly 600 total yards against the Aggies, Auburn saw its playoff chances go up in smoke due to a botched handoff and a botched snap, respectively, in a matter of a few minutes. Still, however distant the odds, the Tigers remain mathematically alive to win the SEC West, and therefore to claim a potential playoff bid as SEC champions. They’ll have to regroup for road trips to Georgia and Alabama to close out the regular season, but if we know anything about Marshall, it’s that he’s never out of the game until the game is over.

At His Best: Marshall averages only about a dozen carries per game, but virtually everything Auburn does offensively revolves around his ability to pull the ball down and run; to a large extent, the mere threat of the quarterback as a runner facilitates a significant chunk of the SEC’s most productive ground game, even when Marshall is handing off about three times as often as he’s keeping the ball himself. Like all great option quarterbacks, Marshall generates most of his yards with ballhandling savvy and good decision-making in his reads, not with raw athleticism. But as Alabama learned the hard way last November, if he gets a crease he’s more than capable of taking it the distance.

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It’s no coincidence that in that game Alabama defenders were more concerned with corralling Marshall in the open field than with covering potential receivers on his late, game-tying touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. Eighteen of Marshall’s 185 carries over the last two years (including sacks) have gone for at least 20 yards.

Still, within the context of a system that always strives to set up the pass with the run, Marshall is probably underappreciated as a passer: In conference games this year, he’s the most efficient passer in the SEC, ahead of Dak Prescott, Blake Sims, et al. His arm strength is above average — 50-yard bomb to Sammie Coates is a weekly staple of the offense, regardless of the coverage — and Marshall is capable of fitting passes into tight windows if necessary. Most frustrating for opposing defenses, though, is Marshall’s ability to extend plays under pressure, keep his head, and find something downfield where initially there was nothing. The play below, an ad-libbed, third-and-11 conversion at Ole Miss on November 1, was the turning point in a must-win game that Auburn trailed by 10 points in the second half.

The Tigers went on to score a touchdown on that possession and the two after that, and went on to win (albeit in grisly fashion), 35-31. Marshall is ideally suited to Malzahn’s system, but he’s too talented to be confined by it.

At His Worst: The success of the running game has helped mask some of Marshall’s deficiencies, as have his wide receivers: Coates and Duke Williams2 are big, first-rate targets who seem to routinely come down with balls in traffic that they have no business catching. In terms of Marshall’s size, accuracy, and consistency, NFL scouts are still likely to look at him and see a defensive back.

On paper, Marshall’s worst game of the season came in a 38-23 loss at Mississippi State on October 11, when his inaccuracy was on display over the course of a career-high 35 attempts. Although he threw two touchdowns against the Bulldogs, Marshall limped out of Starkville with season lows for completion percentage (48.6) and efficiency (106.2), and was picked off twice on passes batted at the line of scrimmage. (His only other interception on the year to that point, at Kansas State, was also tipped at the line.) As dangerous as he can be when he breaks contain, Marshall isn’t comfortable attempting to hang in the pocket and patiently go through progressions downfield; his instinct is to get out of the traffic. On the rare occasions when he’s forced to plant his feet and get rid of the ball decisively, he can be prone to mistakes.

To Saturday and Beyond: To get back to the SEC championship game, Auburn needs Mississippi State to drop two of its last three; conveniently, MSU closes with a pair of killer road trips, to Alabama this weekend and Ole Miss on November 29. If they get past Georgia on Saturday and get the help they need from Bama, the Tigers could go into Tuscaloosa on the 29th with the whole enchilada still theoretically on the table. That scenario requires navigating a thicket of tiebreakers and hinges on the assumption that the SEC champion will be granted automatic entry to the playoff even with two losses, but hey, it’s there. Theoretically.

Realistically, after last weekend’s lapse, Auburn is playing for a spot in one of the so-called “access bowls,” the new designation for prestigious (née BCS) bowls that aren’t slated to host one of the playoff semifinals. Whatever the destination, with a strong finish Marshall can still cement his place as one of the great quarterbacks ever to play on the Plains — not on the level of a force of nature like Cam Newton, but not very far behind. The year before Marshall’s arrival, Auburn was 0-8 in SEC play with an average margin of defeat of 24 points per game. His first year on campus, the Tigers beat Alabama in ludicrous fashion, won the conference, and came within a few seconds of the most improbable national championship in the history of the sport, despite fielding a defense that yielded exactly the same number of yards against FBS opponents as it had the previous year en route to last place. This year, with wins over Kansas State, LSU, and Ole Miss already under its belt, Auburn still has a chance to take the Iron Bowl and give the selection committee something to think about. If the Tigers make it that far, Marshall’s masterful grasp of the offense won’t be overshadowed by the ball he let slip against A&M.

Quick Outs

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• Speaking of the Aggies: The emergence of five-star true freshman Kyle Allen may spell the end for his predecessor, sophomore Kenny Hill, who was technically suspended for the Auburn game for the dreaded “violation of team rules,” but was already on the cusp of being benched following a 59-0 humiliation at Alabama.3 Assuming Allen has cemented his status for the foreseeable future, Hill’s descent from Heisman candidate to transfer risk in the span of roughly one month must be the most rapid individual nosedive in recent memory. On opening night, Hill smashed Johnny Manziel’s school passing record by throwing for 511 yards in his first career start, a 52-28 romp over South Carolina, and I was moved enough by the occasion to mention Hill in the same breath not only as Manziel, but also Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston. That was in late August. In mid-November? I’ll be surprised if Hill starts another game at Texas A&M.

All of Ohio State’s goals for 2014 — Big Ten title, playoff berth — are still very much in play after Saturday’s eye-opening, 49-37 win at Michigan State, but the smashing success of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett raises the question: Who’s going to be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback in 2015? The idea of benching Braxton Miller, the engine of a two-year, 24-game winning streak in 2012-13, is absurd. When he addressed the subject on September 30, coach Urban Meyer refused to indulge the suggestion of a controversy, assuring reporters that “Braxton is our quarterback” when he returns from a shoulder injury next year. In the meantime, though, Miller’s understudy has posted the second-best pass efficiency rating in the nation (behind only Marcus Mariota), and just eviscerated the same MSU defense that brought the winning streak under Miller to a thudding stop last December. At this point, forecasting a demotion for Barrett would be equally ridiculous.

“Competition brings out the best, and I’m really excited to have two really good quarterbacks next year,” Meyer said on Monday, abandoning the pretense that Miller will return to find his old job waiting for him. “I think they’re both excellent quarterbacks, excellent quarterbacks, and we’ll worry about that day when it comes.”

If he were a more polished pro prospect, Miller might consider entering the draft; as it is, he projects as a late-round flier amid speculation that his NFL future is at running back, à la Denard Robinson. Assuming he wraps up his undergraduate degree this spring, Miller could also use his last season of eligibility at another school as a graduate transfer. More likely, Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman4 will spend the offseason devising some way to involve both Miller and Barrett next fall, with Miller conceivably taking over more of a tailback role in an effort to get them both on the field at the same time. At the moment, though, that scenario is barely a speck on the horizon. “I know it sounds coachspeak, but I honestly give [next year] zero, zero thought,” Herman said on Monday. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come it. It literally is not even in the back of my mind.” 

Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner

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The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Leidner has always looked like the perfect Minnesota quarterback — shouldn’t every Golden Gophers QB should be a 6-foot-4, 237-pound native nicknamed “Moose”? — and by the standards of the team’s lo-fi offense, his production in Saturday’s 51-14 beatdown of Iowa yielded the perfect stat line: 10-of-13 passing, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and an obscene 267.6 efficiency rating, complemented by a team-high 77 yards rushing on 7.0 per carry. Altogether, Minnesota rebounded from a sobering loss at Illinois to roll up 291 yards rushing against the Hawkeyes, its best rushing effort in a Big Ten game since 2005. Surely that’s the kind of performance they were envisioning when they decided to fete the winner with a cast-iron pig.

If not for the lapse against Illinois — Minnesota’s only blemish in Big Ten play — the Gophers would be the belle of the ball in the B1G West, with a decisive three-game stretch on deck against AP no. 8 Ohio State, no. 11 Nebraska, and no. 22 Wisconsin to close the regular season. As it stands, Minnesota will have to win at least two of those three to have a shot at the division title (depending on which two), which is not going to happen with the Buckeyes beginning to separate from the pack and both dates with the Cornhuskers and Badgers coming on the road. But the spoiler potential is very strong.

QB Curve Power Hour!

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Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 11.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Against Utah, Mariota turned in his first 100-yard rushing game of the season, while still passing for 239 yards and three touchdowns. The Ducks won’t be tested again until the Pac-12 championship game. (Last week: 1)

2. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. Prescott’s passing numbers in SEC play aren’t anything to write home about, but if the Bulldogs move to 10-0 this weekend with a win at Alabama, the stat sheet will be irrelevant. (LW: 2)

3. Brett Hundley, UCLA. The stat sheet is very relevant to Hundley, who leads the nation in completion percentage and just broke Cade McNown’s UCLA record for career touchdown passes. Remember that, like Mariota, Prescott, and Jameis Winston, Hundley still has another season of eligibility to spend in 2015, if he wants to. (LW: 4)

4. Jameis Winston, Florida State. Winston was picked off twice in FSU’s win over Virginia, his fourth multi-interception game of the season, resulting in the worst single-game efficiency rating (123.5) of his career. Still can’t beat him. (LW: 3)

5. Bryce Petty, Baylor. After an erratic October, Petty looked like himself in Baylor’s 48-14 thrashing over Oklahoma, finishing 32-of-42 for 387 yards and a touchdown. Suddenly the Bears look like viable playoff contenders after all. (LW: 8)

6. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Prescott has been too productive to deny, but Marshall is probably still the SEC quarterback I’d least want to see on the opposite sideline as a defensive coordinator. (LW: 5)

7. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. At this rate, Barrett’s going to wind up in New York in a few weeks and Ohio State’s going to have two former Heisman finalists at the same position. (LW: NR)

8. Blake Sims, Alabama. I have no idea why Alabama called for Sims to attempt 45 passes in an ugly, low-scoring slugfest at LSU — especially when he completed only 20 of them — but the last-gasp drive to force overtime was a thing of beauty. (LW: 7)

9. Trevone Boykin, TCU. Boykin looks better in person than he does on paper, where he ranks just 36th nationally in pass efficiency. As with Prescott, though, if Boykin’s team wins out, nobody’s going to pay too much attention to the box scores. (LW: NR)

10. Everett Golson, Notre Dame. With five giveaways against Arizona State, Golson has been responsible 16 turnovers (11 interceptions, five fumbles) in the Irish’s last six games. Still, after accounting for 435 total yards, he’s also on pace to obliterate every Notre Dame record for total offense. (LW: 6)

Waiting: Rakeem Cato (Marshall), Connor Cook (Michigan State), Garrett Grayson (Colorado State), Cody Kessler (USC), Bo Wallace (Ole Miss)

Filed Under: College Football, QB Curve, QB Curve Power Hour!, Reggie Collier “Athlete" of the Week, Nick Marshall, Auburn Tigers, SEC, SEC West, Kyle Allen, Texas A&M Aggies, J.T. Barrett, Braxton Miller, Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mitch Leidner, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott, Brett Hundley, Jameis Winston, Bryce Petty, Blake Sims, Trevone Boykin, Everett Golson, Quarterbacks, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton