Auburn defensive back Robenson Therezie celebrates after a Tigers fumble recovery last Saturday against Arkansas. (Reuters)
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s season of redemption rolls into Knoxville today as the 10th-ranked Tigers face a Tennessee squad that has dropped five of its past seven. One year after going 3-9 and finishing winless in the SEC, Auburn sits one game behind SEC West leader and top-ranked Alabama, with the Iron Bowl looming large Nov. 30. But the Volunteers are 4-1 at home, with the loss coming to Georgia in overtime.
Freshman Joshua Dobbs makes his second start at quarterback for Tennessee in place of the injured Justin Worley. Dobbs presents a dual threat for the Tigers’ defense, throwing for 240 yards and running for 45 in last week’s 31-3 loss at Missouri. The Tigers downed Arkansas 35-17 last week and have averaged 43.4 points during their five-game winning streak.
The Tigers feature the nation’s sixth-best rushing attack (306.2 yards per game), led by running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 168 yards and four touchdowns last week to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Auburn did not know if quarterback Nick Marshall would start last week because of a shoulder injury, but the junior finished with 177 yards of total offense and is expected to be completely healthy against Tennessee.
Marshall didn’t throw his first pass at practice last week until Thursday.
He’s had no such issues this week. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said his signal-caller has been healthy enough to take his normal share of reps with the first-team offense.
“We’ve been careful with him, but he’s done a whole lot more than he did last week and has practiced well,” Malzahn said during his time on the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday. “He’s been doing everything.”
The coaching staff has taken a cautious approach with Marshall, who injured his throwing shoulder during the first quarter of the Florida Atlantic game. However, he didn’t leave until the first play of the second quarter, when he was brought down on a sack and helped off the field by trainers. Marshall did not return to the contest, which saw the Tigers ease past the Owls 45-10.
The Georgia native was given the go-ahead by the coaching staff to start last week’s game against Arkansas. He finished 7-for-8 for 118 yards and one touchdown — an 88-yard connection with Sammie Coates — and rushed for another 59 yards as the Tigers went on to beat the Razorbacks 35-17.
Malzahn wasn’t sure whether they would take to the air more today against Tennessee, saying they would just have to see how the game plays out.
“We felt comfortable, somewhat, last week, but we were fairly successful running the football and we got a lead,” he said. “It was a unique game the way it unfolded, and we were successful, and we kept doing it. We have confidence that we can spread the ball around and we can throw it.”
Continuing to develop chemistry with his receivers is “critical” for Marshall, his coach said, especially given how deep the Tigers are into the season.
“Last week, he had very few reps,” Malzahn said. “This is Week 10, so we should have our base stuff down, it’s just a matter of getting reps in practice and trying to get better.”
Of course, Malzahn is looking for more than just improvement from Marshall.
He admitted that Auburn is no different from other teams around the country, dealing with the challenge of keeping players focused every day at practice.
“But this year has been quite a bit different,” Malzahn said. “Our guys have been extremely locked in this week and that’s been very encouraging to me. There’s been good intensity, there’s been good leadership. That’s usually a good sign.”