Anthony Schwartz knew the call was coming. He could’ve felt it in his feet.
When he got the nod from his head coach, he was ready to run.
Auburn’s offense and its play-caller Gus Malzahn were in total sync at times during Auburn’s big road win Saturday at Texas A&M – even before Schwartz’s thrilling opening-drive, 57-yard touchdown dash that kick-started the victory on a play Schwartz said he knew was coming before Malzahn even called it.
He knew it was going for a touchdown, too.
From the playsheet on the sideline, to the snap on the field, and all the way to the end zone, Auburn’s offense ran in harmony Saturday.
“I just knew,” the speedy Schwartz said under Kyle Field after the win. “I knew it was coming soon. We kind of go by hashes, so I knew when we were on that hash, and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m ready.’
“And then he called it and I’m like, ‘Alright. Touchdown. Get the band ready.’”
Call it music to the Auburn’s ears.
Schwartz broke loose for that touchdown on a reverse from a feigned buck sweep the other way. It got the sophomore track star out in space, and marked the first of several big plays dialed up by Malzahn through his winning scheme during his fifth game back as Auburn’s down-to-down play-caller.
Calls like that one stretched the Texas A&M defense from sideline to sideline, away from the teeth of the Aggies’ touted run defense. Malzahn fooled Texas A&M with plays like the wide-open touchdown pass from Joey Gatewood to John Samuel Shenker later in the first quarter. That score came out of a typically run-first formation and put Auburn up 14-0. In the third, Auburn found itself up 21-3 even after barely running the ball inside, by design.
Texas A&M held Auburn to just 19 rushing yards in the teams’ game last year, and Texas A&M was giving up less than 90 yards per game on the ground this season going into Saturday. But last week, Malzahn devised a gameplan to mitigate Texas A&M’s strengths on defense. His players were on the same page as the head coach every step of the way.
Malzahn decided to take over play-calling at Auburn again last December when he hired young offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. Since then, Auburn is 5-0 with wins that included a record-setting offensive performance in the Music City Bowl last December.
“I like it a lot when they work, I’ll tell you that,” Malzahn smiled after Saturday’s game, asked about dialing up plays again. “I like when they work. That’s what I love to do.”
Malzahn called plays at Auburn during his time on the Plains as an offensive coordinator from 2009-11 and then through his first three seasons as the team’s head coach after he was hired before the 2013 season. In 2016, he publicly announced midseason he’d given away the playsheet to then-coordinator Rhett Lashlee, and after that he hired experienced play-caller Chip Lindsey to run Auburn’s offense in 2017 and 2018.
But now he’s back behind that playsheet, and Saturday the Tigers showed why they’re so excited about it.
After Malzahn drew Auburn into that 21-3 advantage, running back JaTarvious Whitlow took center stage with fresh legs, running the ball eight times on a 12-play fourth-quarter scoring drive, which was capped by Whitlow’s touchdown run and helped make the difference on the scoreboard at the final buzzer, putting Auburn up 28-10 before the Tigers held on 28-20.
Texas A&M, forced out of its aggressive scheme by those reverses and end-arounds and space-creating plays, was playing on its heels by the fourth quarter, and that allowed Whitlow and that offensive line to slash into the Aggies inside.
“We really felt strongly that they were going to blitz us, and they were going to put pressure on Bo, and so strategically, we were going to get the ball on the perimeter,” Malzahn explained after the game. He mentioned Schwartz’s reverse and Gatewood’s touchdown toss. “So that kind of changed the game and they started playing a little more base.”
Auburn rolled up 193 rushing yards, which marked a season-high for the Aggies’ defense.
Whitlow ran for 67 and fellow running back Shaun Shivers ran for 14, but through creative play-calling, Schwartz added 57 rushing yards from the receiver position, while fellow wideout Eli Stove tallied 13 yards and Nix ran for 38 at quarterback.
“That’s a good, aggressive defense. We know how they love to fit,” Schwartz explained. “We just wanted to make them fit wrong, pretty much. If they fit inside, we run outside.
“As soon as we got them to stay back, that’s when we started gashing them.”
Just like Malzahn drew it up.