Kam Martin

Auburn running back Kam Martin breaks through the line for a gain against Washington.

AUBURN — Looking back on Saturday’s 21-16 win over Washington three days later, the thing that stood out most to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was “we’ve got to run the football better.”

JaTarvious Whitlow scored the go-ahead touchdown with a bruising 10-yard run up the middle and sealed the victory with a 4-yard dive out of the Wildcat on third-and-2, but those plays alone don’t make a complete performance.

Whitlow finished his college debut with eight carries for 28 yards, and first-time lead back Kam Martin rushed 22 times for a team-high 80. Overall, Auburn finished the game with 147 rushing yards on 45 attempts, which is an average of 3.3 yards per carry.

That marks Auburn’s third-lowest total since the start of the 2017 season, ahead of only losses to Clemson (0.9 yards per carry) and Central Florida (2.1).

“When we’re at our best it’s more than that. We’ve got to do better than that,” Malzahn said. “Everybody in this room knows for us to have a chance to win a championship we’ve got to run the football better, more consistent.”

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey made sure to give some of the credit for Auburn’s modest totals to a very good Washington defense, which ranked fourth nationally allowing fewer than 101 rushing yards per game and second limiting opponents to just 2.86 yards per carry last season.

Two teams (California and Washington State) finished with negative rushing yards in losses to the Huskies in 2017. Only three teams (Oregon, Stanford and Penn State) rushed for more yards against them than Auburn did Saturday.

“It’s hard to block them,” Lindsey said. I think we ran it 45 times or something like that, but we kept trying. You have to keep trying to establish the run. At times, mostly in pace, I think we hit a few runs. But, you know, give those guys credit over there. They’ve got a pretty good D-line. We battled and won some and lost some.”

Winning those battles should be much easier Saturday against FCS Alabama State, which allowed Tuskegee to rush 46 times for 273 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns in its season-opening victory last week.

The Tigers have been in this position before, too — two years ago, they rushed 41 times for just 87 yards in a season-opening loss to Clemson. Last year, it was 42 times for 38 yards in a Week 2 game against the same opponent that had the same result.

Auburn went on to lead the SEC in rushing offense in 2016 and ranked fourth in 2017. It had a 1,000-yard rusher both seasons — the program’s eighth and ninth straight seasons achieving such a feat.

Of course, Kamryn Pettway and reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson won’t be walking through that door this season, even though the latter was at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday to cheer his former team on during an off day away from his new team, the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

This year, it will fall on Martin, Whitlow and a redesigned offensive line to fix what ailed the Tigers in Week 1.

“Like Coach says, to win in this league you got to run the ball; to win championships you got to run the ball,” Martin said. “That’s what we’re going to focus on this week, running the ball and we’ll improve on it. I know we will.”

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