AUBURN -- Society loves to point out flaws amidst something good. In the sports world, these critics can come in many different forms.
Sometimes it's coaches or fans looking for more from their team out of a victory. At others, it's reporters questioning certain coaching decisions or the performance of specific players.
Auburn finds itself in this precise predicament. The Tigers are 2-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country in both major polls. Yet the most popular topic of discussion among fans and reporters in the past week has been play of quarterback Nick Marshall.
Sure, he has run for 122 yards and two scores.
But it's the passing numbers that have led to questions; through two games, he has completed only 56 percent (14-for-25) of his attempts for 151 yards and one touchdown.
The nitpicking came as no surprise to Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
"I think when you’re a senior and you’re returning the expectations are high. Some people say Heisman, some people say this and what not. A lot has been made of it all offseason long," Lashlee said. "Obviously, that’s the only thing anybody cares about. Nobody cares about the fact that 59 points were put on the board and when he was in, other than the fumble, the first six drives touchdowns were scored (against San Jose State). Nobody looks at that."
The other thing that has to be taken into account, of course, is how much Marshall has played. In the season opener against Arkansas, he wasn't in the starting lineup, part of his punishment for an off-season marijuana citation. He finally entered the game at the start of the third quarter. With Auburn's running game having no problems moving the ball, Marshall threw only six passes, connecting on four of them for 50 yards.
Against San Jose State, Marshall was back in the lineup, but wasn't particularly sharp in the passing game, barely breaking the 50 percent completion mark (10-for-19) and the 100-yard barrier (101) before departing at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Given the fact he's only appeared in five quarters this season, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will leave the fretting to others.
"For what's happened from a coach's standpoint, it's way too early," Malzahn said. "There was two instances where he got pressure in his face and then one, I put him in a bind with a play call. He had to throw it away where a guy could catch it or nobody catch it."
Even so, Malzahn took the opposite tack of Lashlee, saying he has been bewildered by the criticism of his senior quarterback.
"There were two or three times in the game where it wasn’t the quarterback’s fault," he said. "We feel very good about where he is. You have to remember, he’s the guy who led us to the national championship (game). We really believe in him. He has gotten better, and as the season goes on, people will be able to see that."
Part of the reason for Marshall's uneven passing performance against the Spartans in Lashlee's mind was, simply enough, due to the opponent. San Jose State did "a really good job mixing up looks" in its fronts and coverages.
A factor that figured every bit as prominently was the conspicuous absence of Sammie Coates, the Tigers' leading receiver in every statistical category last season, from catches (42) to yards (902) to touchdowns (seven).
The team held him out against San Jose State because of a minor leg injury. The decision came just two days before the game, forcing Auburn to shuffle its receiving corps and move pass-catchers to different places on the field.
That, Lashlee said, cannot be downplayed.
"You've got guys in different spots and you’re used to throwing timing with certain people, you can be half-yard or yard off on something and that’s going to make all the difference in the world," he said. "He missed a few throws he’s got to hit. ... A couple of times we should have caught the ball. It’s as a whole, we have to be a little cleaner and a little crisper."
Marshall himself acknowledged his play wasn't up to par.
"I feel like I played great but I could have done some things better," he said in his postgame interview. "There were a couple throws that I could have made, but I just have to go out and practice to get better."
There were two passes in particular that Lashlee pointed to where he absolved his quarterback of any blame. On both, Marshall's protection broke down and he was forced to rush his throws. He completed one, which Lashlee praised as "a really good throw with someone in his face."
The other breakdown ended in an incompletion, leaving Lashlee visibly frustrated.
"We were in a max protection. ... We had plenty of people, but we just didn't stay square enough. We let a guy split us," he said. "It was the one to (tight end) C.J. (Uzomah) that ended up being behind him. Nick threw it earlier than he normally would. It was coming open, and it would have been an easy, lay-it-in touchdown for C.J. But he ended up turning loose early, it ended up being a back shoulder, and we didn't make the play."
So forget about the passing game -- Lashlee said Marshall graded out "OK" in film review. The only thing that bothered him about Marshall's game against the San Jose State was a miscue on the opening drive.
Well on his way to a 50-yard touchdown run, Marshall was run down from behind and fumbled the ball into the end zone, where the Spartans jumped on it for a touchback.
"The fumble was by far the most disappointing thing for him personally because we worked on it and worked on it and harped on it," Lashlee said. "He broke that last tackle at the five and, I think, he relaxed and didn’t think anybody else was there. You can’t do that. That was a huge momentum killer to start the game. You’re about to be up 7-0 quick, and instead all of the momentum shifts. That was the most disappointing thing."
Lashlee assured that Marshall's passing numbers will improve as the season progresses. The 31-year-old coordinator has noticed the quarterback's gains since the end of last season. It just hasn't shown itself during a game yet.
Lashlee is sure that will come in due time.
"We’re going to have to make a lot of plays in the passing game. We feel like we can do it," he said. "We just have to go out and prove it.”