Blake and Reed emerged at the start of the season as the Tigers’ top two wide receivers, but when both went to the sideline with injuries, Auburn’s passing game took a nosedive.
Now both are back in the lineup in time for the Tigers’ final three games against Georgia, Samford and Alabama.
“It just brings two more weapons to our offense and that’s something they have to game plan for,” said Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley. “They both require attention. You got them both on the field, that’s something the defense is going to have to point out. If they don’t, we’ll surely get them the ball. It really opens our game plan up and lets us do a few more things, I think it’s really going to help us.”
Through Auburn’s first five games, Blake had 19 receptions for 333 yards and four touchdowns, with Reed second on the team in receptions with 13 for 91 yards.
Reed went down with a shoulder injury in the fourth game of the season, while Blake went down with a high ankle sprain in the second half of a 16-13 victory over South Carolina in game five.
With both Reed and Blake were out, Auburn expected another wide receiver to step up. No one did.
Dropped passes and poorly-run routes plagued the Tigers, who turned into a one-dimensional team relying almost exclusively on the running game.
Teams loaded the box accordingly, and the results were predictable. Auburn’s offense went from averaging 35.2 points per game over the first four games of the season to 13.2 over the next four.
By the time both players were back against Ole Miss, tailback Onterio McCalebb had become the Tigers’ leading receiver.
It was a less than ideal situation for an offense predicated on balance between run and pass and the ability to stretch the field in the vertical passing game.
Reed said it was a painful thing to watch.
“When the passing game was struggling and they kept on saying how terrible the receivers are, in my heart I knew our guys,” Reed said. “I knew they work hard every day, and me and Emory don’t make the team. We’re just part of the team. That was eating me and him up at the same time. We just motivated the guys to go out there and play even harder.”
Slowly, things are coming back together. Reed returned in the Tigers’ 45-10 loss at No. 1-ranked LSU and caught two passes for 26 yards.
Blake returned against Ole Miss and had five receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown.
A week off for the 24th-ranked Tigers (6-3, 4-2 SEC) has both players a lot closer to 100 percent healthy heading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 15 Georgia (7-2, 5-1 SEC).
“It’s big for us, there’s no question about it,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. “Whether they’re at 85 percent or 100 percent, just having them on the field is really big for us in terms of what we call, how we call it. Having Emory back the other night versus Ole Miss, it was obvious in some third-down situations, him making some big catches and things of that nature that were all at the right time, makes a difference for your whole football team.”
While Auburn’s issues in achieving offensive balance go beyond injury problems at wide receiver, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn acknowledges it’s good to have both players back.
“It’s very important,” Malzahn said. “Especially this time of year that you’ve got your guys you started with at the first part of the year. That’s good this time of year to have those pieces of the puzzle out there so you can call your whole offense.”
And in turn, achieve some semblance of balance between run and pass, which Malzahn views as critical.
“I think any time you’re playing a very good defense you’ve got to be balanced, and that’s been our challenge all year,” Malzahn said. “We’ve tried to be balanced. Some games we have, so games we have not. Some of our deficiencies have been protecting our quarterbacks, some of it is running routes and catching the ball and some of it is getting the ball to them. But that is our challenge and we have worked hard to get better. At times, now that we’re getting some guys healthy back again it looks like we’re getting closer to achieving that.
“We’re going to have to be balanced against Georgia, there’s no doubt. We’re going to have to run it and we’re going to have to throw it, because they’re good enough that you can’t be one-dimensional. If they make us one-dimensional, it’s going to be a tough day.”