Nick Marshall and surging Auburn can't be stopped
ATLANTA—The most important player on the Auburn roster began jogging at the 20-yard line, with nothing but open field in front of him. It was 45 minutes after the Tigers had defeated Missouri 59-42 in the SEC championship game, and five cameramen were in his wake, trailing him like pilot fish, trying to capture one last image of Nick Marshall before he left the Georgia Dome field on Saturday night. At the 10-yard line the junior quarterback waved his right index finger in the air, Namath-like, and then shouted three words to no one in particular, three words that succinctly summed up the performance of Auburn's offense, "Can't! Be! Stopped!"
No they couldn't, and it was largely because of the play of Marshall. Yes, running back Tre Mason ran for 304 yards and four touchdowns, but make no mistake: Marshall is the number one reason the Tigers are probably heading to the BCS title game in Pasadena. His coaches and teammates all say the 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior college transfer is the most essential part of a turnaround that has taken Auburn from a 3-9 record last season to an SEC championship in 2013. After two early fumbles, Marshall was nearly flawless against Missouri. He ran 101 yards and one touchdown, and completed 9-of-11 passes for 132 yards and another touchdown.
"We knew we were a decent football team, but I think until Nick Marshall walked onto our campus we were an average football team," said defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
"We didn't have confidence last year, but when Nick arrived he instilled the entire program with confidence," said junior center Reese Dismukes. "He changed everything. He's the real deal. Everything just comes so natural to him. And he's just got this attitude that no matter what the circumstances, he'll get the job done. That's something we didn't have last year."
"Nick has gotten better each day," said junior wide receiver Quan Bray. "When he first arrived in the summer he was just an athlete playing quarterback. Even early in the year he wasn't comfortable back there and he'd make some misreads. But not anymore. He's got the total package and can beat defenses with his legs or his arm."
Marshall's journey to Auburn is eerily similar to the one taken by Cam Newton, another quarterback who is famous on the Plains. At Wilcox County High in Rochelle, Ga., Marshall set the state record for career touchdown passes (103). After accepting a scholarship to Georgia, Marshall, not wanting to sit behind quarterback Aaron Murray, switched positions to cornerback. He played sparingly for the Bulldogs as a freshman in 2011, making five tackles. But in January 2012, Marshall was dismissed from Georgia for a violation of team rules. (He was reportedly present during a dorm-room robbery, but no charges were filed.)
A few weeks later, Marshall rode 18 hours in a car to western Kansas with Jeff Tatum, the coach at Garden City Community College, to begin the rehabilitation of his college career -- just as Newton had done at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, in 2010. When he went to Garden City, Marshall was adamant about two things: He was going to play quarterback, and he was going to return to the SEC, where he believed he had unfinished business.
"There's no doubt that I needed to grow up, and that's what I did when I went to Kansas," Marshall said. "When I got to Auburn last summer I could tell how hungry the guys were after going 3-9. They felt like they had something to prove, and so did I. It was like a perfect fit. We honestly believed, even back in the summer, that we could have the greatest turnaround in college football this year, and that's what we talked about all season."
There were two key moments for Marshall this season. The first was on Sept. 14. With 1:56 left in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State, the Tigers trailed 20-17 and had the ball on their own 12-yard line. In 2012 Auburn had lost three of its first four games by a touchdown or less, which shattered team morale. But against the Bulldogs, Marshall, whose picture doesn't even appear in the Tigers' media guide, stood in the huddle and confidently told his teammates, "We can do this. We will do this." And they did: With 10 seconds left to play, he hit tight end C.J. Uzomah for an 11-yard touchdown pass. Auburn won 24-20.
Marshall's second transformative moment came eight days later, after the Tigers had lost 35-21 to LSU. Back on campus, Marshall watched hours of game film, analyzing why he threw two interceptions, and why he made several poor reads on option runs. "Something just clicked for me after watching that tape," Marshall said. "I knew I had to be smarter and keep my head in the playbook. Ever since then I've felt like we really can't be stopped on offense. We're going to pound you with the run and we're going to play-action pass you. We've got athletes everywhere. As long as we don't stop ourselves, we can be pretty good."
Auburn certainly was pretty good on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. On the victory podium 30 minutes after the final whistle blew, Tre Mason, the game's MVP, grabbed Marshall, the team's MVP. It was Mason who had escorted Marshall around the leafy Auburn campus on the latter's recruiting visit last January. Mason had put the hard sell on the talented junior college quarterback back then. Now, Mason had something else he wanted to say.
"I love you," Mason told Marshall. "And man, I'm really, really glad you're our quarterback."