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Gus Malzahn Press Conference Review: LSU Preview

Gus Malzahn (Photo: Auburn Athletics/Todd Van Emst)

The College Football season has reached its' half-way mark for Auburn. Last week, the Tigers knocked off Ole Miss, 44-23, playing the final game at Jordan-Hare Stadium until November 10. This week, Gus Malzahn's Tigers travel to Baton Rouge to face LSU. While the Bayou Bengals have had their share of struggles, this could be a challenging game for Auburn.

In 1999, Auburn traveled to "Death Valley" and knocked off LSU, 41-7. To celebrate the win, Auburn players smoked victory cigars on the field. That... was the last time Auburn defeated LSU in Baton Rouge.

That was a key topic during Tuesday's press conference with Malzahn, as well as the status of injured players, and how much his team has improved every week.

Opening Statement:

LSU has had an up-and-down season to this point. LSU has fallen twice this season, once to Mississippi State, and to a group-of-five member, Troy in week five. After falling to the Trojans at home, LSU rebounded by defeating Florida, 17-16, in Gainesville. Malzahn understands that this LSU team is not to be taken lightly.

"They had a big win last week vs. Florida on the road, a close game that they found a way to win, so I know that they are going to have a lot of momentum."

Malzahn then hit on how LSU plays football, and what his team needs to do in order to win on the road.

"When you look at them offensively, they put a lot of pressure on your defense, specifically on the perimeter with all of their speed sweeps, their unbalance and their shifts, and every way that they present that. Defensively, they are a Top 20 defense like they usually are. Their defensive line, you can tell, is getting healthier. Their linebackers are very aggressive, and they can really run. Of course, Arden Key is one of the dynamic players defensively in our league, and you can tell that he is starting to get in shape, and is starting to really play. It’s a big challenge for our team. Our message has been each week to get better, and the last three weeks I feel like we’ve done that. We are going to have to continue to do that on the road at LSU.”

Status of injured players:

Malzahn addressed the status of a handful of injured players, starting with Kamryn Pettway.

"We are going to stick to the fact that when he is healthy that we will play him. He will practice this week. We will see how he is. If he is healthy we will play and if not, then we’ll hold him out until he’s healthy.”

Pettway has not lived up to the play of last season, due mainly to injury. Against Clemson and Mercer, the junior carried the football 55 times. In three games played, Pettway has 61 carries for 208 yards. Does Malzahn have any regrets about playing Pettway, despite his injury?

“As a coach, when you do something for 27 years, you have to make decisions that you think is the best at that time. And you always have the ability to look back and think, well, we probably should have rested in the morning. Like I said last week that whatever we did up to that point wasn’t working. We tried a different approach. Let’s get him healthy before we get him back out there. At the time you make a call and as a leader, that’s part of it. You make calls that you think are the best at that time.”

On offensive lineman, Mike Horton.

“He’ll give it a shot today in practice. We will see how he does. He definitely wants to play. We will know more by Thursday. He’s got a chance to play.”

How does Malzahn plan to adjust the offensive line if Horton is unavailable?

"If he doesn’t, then the way we ended the game, I would be prepared for that. We have a lot of confidence in Prince Tega Wanagho and Austin Golson, too. He played his fifth position last week, which tells you a lot about his versatility. There are few players around the country that can do that.”

What about Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis?

“Both of them will practice today. We will see how they do. We’ll know more later in the week.”

Kerryon Johnson:

Auburn has the nation's leader in rushing touchdowns on its' roster, Kerryon Johnson. Johnson has 12 rushing scores so far, 11 of them have come over the last three games. Malzahn says that stat has a lot to do with Johnson hitting the right holes.

"I think running backs are born instinctively. You can coach landmarks, pressing the line of scrimmage and reading the backers, but my experience is that the special ones have the unique ability that they can make things right and good decisions going full speed.”

Much like Pettway, Johnson has not played at 100% all season long. After leaving the Georgia Southern game early, Johnson went on to miss the Clemson and Mercer game, before returning for the Missouri game, where he rushed for five touchdowns. Johnson has worked every week to return to 100%, which is where Malzahn hopes to have him this week.

"If you look at the last three weeks, you could tell he hasn’t been 100 percent. At Missouri, he had a couple chances to hit some seams and turn on the gas. He didn’t want to re-pull his hamstring, so he geared it down. Against Mississippi State, you saw him break and he geared it down. Last week when he broke, he was able to turn it loose. You can see that he is getting healthier. Last week he wasn’t quite 100 percent, but he was close. Our goal this week is to have him 100 percent. We will be very smart with him in practice."

Losing at Clemson, where the team is since that:

"When you bring up that name, it hurts to hear that."

That was Malzahn's response when answering a question centered around the Clemson loss. Despite keeping it a close game, many agree that the showing on the road against the defending national champions was anything but great. The team has come a long way since then, Malzahn says that the loss has been used for motivation.

"I know that it motivates our players and our coaches. All the experiences you have up to the first half help build everything in the second half. The challenge is very few teams around the country continue to improve. That is extremely hard to do. It takes a lot to get up each week and play at a high level. Very few teams can do it. That is our challenge. It is not easy. We talk about it and we address it. If we do it then we will end up having a pretty good year.”

Does Malzahn feel that the kinks have been worked out offensively heading into week seven?

"We have a new coordinator. We have a new quarterback. We have some new starters, and it is the reality of everyone getting comfortable and starting to play to their strengths. Chip (Lindsey) was brought in to provide balance and more shots downfield, and he has done that. We have been able to hit some of those explosive pass plays, and we have had explosive run plays too. Our tempo has gotten better. So I think it is just more of an all of the above: everything coming together, being more comfortable, knowing who we are and running the football effectively, which I think is where it all starts -- also having the ability when your quarterback is highly efficient and protecting the football and making good decisions. I think the fact that we are spreading it around to a lot of different receivers is really good. We still have a lot of areas to improve on. This time of year, we are at the halfway point. Coaches can see your tendencies, they can see what you are good at and what you are not good at and try to take stuff away. This time of year is about execution. It is more about execution right now more than any other time, because as a coach, whatever you are good at, you want to keep building on those things. Well, other teams know that and they are going to try to stop it, and you have to have an answer when they try to do certain things. So really it is more about execution this time of year than it was the first half.”

The loss at Clemson has made Jarrett Stidham a better quarterback as well.

“I think anytime you go through adversity, it either brings out the best in you or the worst in you, and I think it just brought out the best in him. Sometimes you have to go through experiences. And you have to keep in mind his number of starts. Up to that point, he’s still a freshman. He’s getting better. You can tell he’s getting more comfortable and more confidence and he’s playing at a high level and we’ve just got to keep building upon that."

Playing at LSU:

Last year's Auburn-LSU game was.... interesting. The game ended with a overturned touchdown call after LSU quarterback Danny Etling failed to take the snap before the game clock expired in the fourth quarter. The next day, Les Miles was fired as Head Coach of the team, with Ed Orgeron being promoted to interim Head Coach, where he ultimately grabbed the position on a full-time basis.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Miles would return to Baton Rouge. He will join the 2007 LSU football team for a ten-year celebration of their national championship. Has Malzahn made contact with Miles since last season's game?

“I have talked to him and I think I talked to him the week that (he got fired). I’ve got a lot of respect for Les Miles. He’s an outstanding coach. He’s not a good coach; he’s an outstanding coach. And I think he’s a great person. And I think it’s a really good deal that they’re honoring him. I’ve talked to him numerous times. Obviously, we hired Larry Porter. Larry Porter worked for him. He gave him a great recommendation, so I’ve got a lot of respect for Les Miles.”

The biggest storyline heading into this week's game, is the streak. LSU has won every game in the series inside Tiger Stadium since 2001, with Auburn's last win coming in 1999. How does Malzahn plan to motivate the team?

“Just be honest and up front. If you talk to our players, this is a new year. They are their own team. Even though some of our players were there two years ago, this is a different dynamic. This is a new staff. They have a new team. They have a new head coach. Everything is different. We do need to understand that it has been a long time since we have beaten them there. I think we all need to know that, but this is a new year and that is the way we are looking at it. It is a big challenge to go there and win.”

How much added pressure does knowing that Troy beat LSU two weeks ago put on the team?

“We are not worried about anything that has happened up to this point, good, bad or in between. This is the week we play LSU. They are in the West, and it is a very important game. We don’t get caught up week to week in who they are playing and who they have played.”

Since Malzahn took the head coaching job in 2013, one thing has been constant: falling behind early. In 2013, the only loss in the regular season came on the road at LSU, 35-21. In 2015, the Bayou Bengals took a 24-0 lead into the locker room, en route to a 45-21 victory. Is stopping LSU's offense early a part of the game plan?

"We’ve gotten behind early, consistently (in this series) and we’ve got to overcome that and that’ll definitely be part of the message.”

#10 Auburn faces LSU this Saturday at 2:30 central in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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