AUBURN, Ala. -- When Mike Leach was asked about Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall after Saturday’s game, he said he was curious to see the junior college transfer once he has a couple games under his belt.
That’s the best way to assess Marshall’s debut with the Tigers. The numbers aren’t great -- 100 of 19 for 99 yards through the air with 27 yards on the ground -- but it was his first game. Sure, Cam Newton scored five touchdowns in his Auburn debut, but Marshall isn’t Newton, at least not through one game.
The fact is that Marshall was nervous. Unlike Newton, he didn’t participate in the spring. He showed up on campus just two months ago, and he had jitters in his first game.
“That’s to be expected,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think a lot of our guys had jitters starting out. He calmed down after the first series or two. I think we had some drops early that probably didn’t help either, but he settled down and I think the game slowed down for him.”
Marshall was pressing in the first quarter. He bobbled the snap on the first play from scrimmage, and when he tried to make a play, he was tackled for a 4-yard loss. He showed off his arm strength with his first throw, but the ball sailed 10 yards over the head of his intended receiver. It wasn’t until Auburn’s third drive before he completed his first pass.
“I was playing nervous,” Marshall admitted.
In the second quarter, Malzahn opted to play it safe. He turned to his trio of running backs to carry the offense, and Marshall attempted just two passes during the 15-minute period. It was not the first half Marshall was hoping for, but he didn’t let it get him down.
“We had a game plan coming in, so at halftime, we didn't make very many adjustments,” Marshall said. “[Malzahn] told us to stick to our game plan and keep doing what we've been doing. I wasn't really worried about throwing the ball much. I just stuck to the game plan.”
The game plan might not have changed at halftime, but Marshall did. The early nerves seemed to disappear and he found a groove in the second half.
He completed his first three passes, including a 34-yard strike to Sammie Coates in which he placed the pass just over Coates’ back shoulder where only his receiver could get it. From there, it started to look natural. He found Jaylon Denson on the right flat for 11 yards. He connected with Quan Bray on the same side for 10 yards. He looked comfortable for the first time.
The strong-armed Marshall still missed on a couple of deep balls, overthrowing his receivers, but even those throws showed more touch in the second half.
“Sometimes it takes awhile,” Malzahn said. “We’ve had our quarterback here for four weeks, and trying to get timing with everything, that should get better as we come. I know there was one (overthrow) that was close. I didn’t really get a great look at it, but the one in the end zone was close. We’ll just keep working.”
At the end of the day, Auburn won the game, and more importantly for Marshall, he didn’t turn the ball over. He executed the game plan and protected the football.
“We had a plan coming in, a specific plan, and we tried to stick to it,” Malzahn said. “We didn’t want to put [Marshall] in a bad situation.”
But the first impression still left a lot of question marks. The real assessment won’t come until Malzahn removes the leash from his first-year quarterback and lets Marshall make a play, good or bad.