Southern Miss vs Auburn

Auburn's Anthony Schwartz scores a touchdown in the first half. Southern Miss vs Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 in Auburn, Ala. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

AUBURN — It took 16 plays for Anthony Schwartz to get his hands on the ball last week in Gainesville.

It was first-and-10 from the Florida 35-yard line at the start of the second quarter, the first play after Derrick Brown picked up a fumble and nearly took it to the house. True freshman quarterback Bo Nix handed the ball to the speedy sophomore wide receiver on a jet sweep running toward the field side. The Gators’ defense had it sniffed out.

Defensive end Jonathan Greenard set the edge. H-back Spencer Nigh was late getting out to block cornerback Marco Wilson, who forced Schwartz to turn upfield into a host of defenders. Linebacker James Houston made the tackle for a loss of 4 yards, but even if he hadn’t, someone else would have.

“We tried to hide one of our speed sweeps, and they set the edge. It was minus-4,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “So, they weren't gonna give you anything on the outside.”

That wound up being the only time Schwartz touched the ball during Auburn’s 24-13 loss at The Swamp. He was targeted twice in the passing game, but neither throw was on target — Nix threw wide of him on a second-and-7 hitch route that would have gone for a first down in the first quarter, then over his head on a third-and-10 deep post that was double-covered in the second.

It was far from the only problem the Tigers dealt with on offense. Very little worked. Nix had the most inaccurate day of his young career, completing only 11 of 27 passes and throwing three interceptions. They went just 2 of 14 on third down, which is the program’s worst mark since 2015. The offensive line wasn’t able to create any push in the running game until the second half. Malzahn never found the right opportunity to run the Wildcat or bring backup quarterback Joey Gatewood into the game.

The loss will have lasting effects — lead running back JaTarvious Whitlow suffered a knee injury that required surgery and will cost him the next four to six weeks.

But not finding more ways to get the ball into Schwartz’s hands is an issue that needs to be fixed. Malzahn acknowledged it specifically after the game. The sophomore wide receiver is an elite sprinter (he ran a junior-world-record time of 10.15 seconds in the 100-meter dash in high school) and an every-play home run threat who has averaged 12.8 yards per play over the course of his career. Auburn averaged a season-low 4.4 yards per play Saturday.

“He’s a dynamic playmaker, and we’ve got to figure out ways to get him the ball more,” Malzahn said. “That will be something in the off week we talk about.”

Schwartz has never been a high-volume option in Auburn’s offense. Saturday was the 19th game of his career. He’s averaging barely more than three touches per game during that span. The most touches he’s ever had in a single game is seven — he carried four times for 12 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 50 yards in last season’s Music City Bowl shellacking of Purdue.

Fellow wide receivers Eli Stove and Seth Williams have each already topped that total this season — the former caught seven passes for 27 yards and ran twice for 4 against Tulane, and the latter caught eight balls for 161 yards and two scores in the rout of Mississippi State.

Schwartz, though, has shown that he doesn’t need a ton of touches to provide explosive plays. Nine of his 59 combined carries and catches have gone for 20 or more yards. Nine have gone for touchdowns — Whitlow (15) and Williams (10) are the only skill players with more scores during that span.

That big-play ability was on display in wins over Texas A&M and Mississippi State. The former four-star recruit out of Pembroke Pines, Florida, rushed for a 57-yard touchdown on a reverse against the Aggies, then rushed for a 13-yard score and caught 48-yard pass from Nix to set up another against the Bulldogs.

“I told him on the sidelines it’s the first time I’ve ever seen world-class speed in real life,” Nix said after the win over Texas A&M. “I mean, he was just running away from guys and it was really incredible. That’s what Flash does. He’s a playmaker like that. You get him the ball with some space and room to run, and he’ll do stuff like that.”

But Schwartz does need the ball to make those types of plays. That’s what made his usage against Florida so perplexing.

Auburn never really got Schwartz involved in the offense:

— The Tigers ran 61 plays against the Gators. Schwartz was on the field for only 20 of them: 13 run plays and six passing plays. Seven of those plays look like run-pass options, but it’s unclear whether Nix actually had the option or not — he handed off on six of them.

— To compare: Williams, Stove and Sal Cannella each played more than double the amount of snaps Schwartz did. Jay Jay Wilson played about the same amount, and Will Hastings played slightly fewer.

— Schwartz ran jet sweep motion four times. The first two it was a fake. The third was his lone carry, a loss for 4 yards. On the fourth, the defensive end crashed the run up the middle rather than focus on Schwartz and helped stuff Whitlow for no gain on third-and-1.

“They schemed us up really good,” Nix said.

— Types of routes run on both pure passing plays and what looked to be RPOs: Go (4), slant (3), post (2), hitch (2), screen (1). Schwartz was targeted on two of those plays (one post and one hitch). He was on the field for one of Nix’s three interceptions — he ran a go route, but rather than go with him, Gators safety Shawn Davis sat on the wheel route to Cannella underneath and jumped the throw.

— Schwartz and Williams, Auburn's two best receivers, were on the field together for only nine plays, or 14.8 percent of the team’s snaps. On one hand, that makes sense — Williams and Schwartz are both listed on the depth chart at the same split end position. On the other hand, though, the Tigers see a lot of their wide receiver positions as interchangeable, and Schwartz said earlier in the season that having both him and Williams on the field at the same times means defenses can’t double both.

Case in point: On Auburn’s lone touchdown Saturday, Schwartz lined up in the slot and Williams outside of him. The former ran sort of a clear-out post route over the middle the field that drew three defenders. That left the latter in single coverage to catch a 32-yard pass from Nix before the safety could get over to help.

In six games this season, Schwartz has caught five passes (on 10 targets) for 110 yards and rushed five times for 78 yards and two touchdowns, which is an average of fewer than two touches per game. Part of the reason that number is so low is Schwartz’s health — he suffered a broken hand on Aug. 4, so along with missing all of spring to run track and a portion of the summer due to a hamstring injury, he didn’t get much time to form a rapport with Nix during the preseason, either.

Schwartz has also had to wear some sort of protective brace on that left hand each game this season. The first three games it was a hard cast, which was so limiting that he caught only one pass on two targets and didn’t carry the ball. He’s been able to reduce that to a smaller and more manageable protective apparatus the last three games that has given him more range of motion, but he’s still not quite 100 percent — Malzahn the hope is that he’ll be cleared to play without it in time for the Tigers’ next game at Arkansas on Oct. 19.

If he is, Auburn needs to take advantage of “the fastest player in college football” better than it did against Florida.

“He's an explosive play guy. We'll make a concerted effort to get him the ball more. That's the simple way to put it, I guess,” Malzahn said.

“Anthony Schwartz needs to have the ball more.”

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