AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant delivered a message in Auburn’s opener that people worried about the running game can relax a little bit.
After an impressive win over an SEC opponent, the No. 5 Tigers will try to keep their ground game going as they step into nonconference play for the first time with Saturday night’s visit from San Jose State.
The Tigers produced 302 rushing yards and gobbled up yards in bunches against Arkansas in the second half of their first game without Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason last Saturday. Artis-Payne ran for 177 yards, Corey Grant gained 87 and both scored touchdowns in the 45-21 win, prompting coach Gus Malzahn to call them ”Tailback 1 and 1A.”
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”I read everything that everybody puts out about how they don’t know about how the running game is going to be,” Artis-Payne said afterward. ”We made it through and we’re going to be all right.”
Auburn’s quest for offensive balance with Nick Marshall and an improved receiving corps make it a longshot to duplicate last season’s feat when the Tigers became the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing.
It’s no coincidence that the ground game took off when Marshall returned from suspension in the second half after getting mostly stymied for two quarters. Marshall is one of the more dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.
Defenses have to account for that aspect of his game on every play since Marshall ran for 1,000-plus yards last season. He scored on a 19-yard run on his first possession.
”Obviously Nick adds another element to the run game in a way that, when he’s back there, linebackers, defensive ends, secondary players, everybody is kind of keyed on him differently than they would if he wasn’t in the game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. ”That probably has something to do with it. At the same time we’d like to think we’re able to wear them down a little bit.”
The ”1 and 1A” situation might change as the season progresses. Both those backs logged 100-yard games last season before Mason had his first in Game 4.
Then he finished with six in a row, including a 304-yard game in the SEC championship game against Missouri.
Malzahn said Grant and Artis-Payne could swap roles from game to game.
Artis-Payne was the workhorse in Game 1 with 26 carries. Grant had only 10 runs but the speedster also showed he can run between the tackles.
”Last year, he was primarily outside,” Malzahn said of Grant. ”Now, he’s really doing a solid job with his inside running. He’ll get more and more comfortable as the season goes on. What I liked about Corey is he finished runs. He was looking to get his pads low and looking to finish and run people over.
”Him and Cameron Artis-Payne both. That was the thing from the running back standpoint that I was proud of.”
The Tigers also have highly touted freshman Roc Thomas in the backfield. It seems likely that Thomas will get his first chance to run the ball Saturday night against 31-point underdog San Jose State.
Jeremy Johnson might get a chance to build on his impressive passing performance before Marshall returned. The sophomore threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 attempts.
San Jose State’s starting QB had few issues in his first game as the full-time starter. Senior Blake Jurich completed 22 of 25 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns – two to Tyler Winston – in a 42-10 rout of FCS-level North Dakota last Saturday.
"I think it’s important for him to get off to a good start," coach Ron Caragher said. "He made good decisions, and spread the ball around well. He gained confidence with his throws and that helps his teammates gain more confidence in him, which was a positive."
The Spartans now have a chance to post back-to-back wins over ranked teams for the first time in school history after knocking off No. 16 Fresno State 62-52 in last season’s finale.