By John Zenor
Coach Gus Malzahn made it clear that Auburn doesn’t have a quarterback controversy.
Freshman Jeremy Johnson seems to at least be a solid Plan B after taking advantage of a huge mismatch to lead the Tigers to a 62-3 rout of Western Carolina and a school-record 712 yards on Saturday.
Johnson was 17-of-21 passing for 201 yards and four touchdowns in his college debut while Nick Marshall watched from the sidelines with a knee injury sustained against Mississippi.
Malzahn emphasized that “Nick Marshall is our starting quarterback,” but his status remains uncertain for a visit to No. 9 Texas A&M.
“I think what we proved is that we’ve got two very capable quarterbacks,” the Auburn coach said. “That’s going to do nothing but help us moving forward.”
The competition will get much tougher for the Tigers (5-1), whoever’s at quarterback.
Johnson was announced as the starter Friday evening with Marshall not fully recovered from a knee injury. Marshall did participate in pre-game warmups.
Johnson picked apart the Football Championship Subdivision Catamounts (1-6) before leaving midway through the third quarter.
“It was great,” Johnson said of his first start. “I enjoyed every bit of it. You never know when the opportunity will come. I stayed focused and prayed overnight.”
Cameron-Artis Payne ran for 133 yards on seven carries, including a 59-yard run and a 25-yard touchdown on one drive in the third quarter. Tre Mason gained 100 yards on six carries with first-half touchdowns of 20 and 53 yards.
The Tigers’ old record of 695 yards came against Southwestern Louisiana in 1985. Auburn ran for 511 yards on 43 carries, a school-record average of 11.9 yard per rush. The Tigers had 30 first downs to six for Western Carolina. Eight different players scored for Auburn.
Johnson’s debut provided the only drama in a game when Auburn had four touchdowns just over a minute into the second quarter.
Auburn held Western Carolina, which has lost 32 in a row to FBS and FCS teams, to 173 total yards.
“Coach Malzahn is a class act,” Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said. “That game could have been a lot uglier than it was.”
A four-star recruit and Alabama’s Mr. Football, the 6-foot-5, 219-pound Johnson had been a candidate for a redshirt year before getting called into action over Jonathan Wallace, who started the last four games of 2012. Malzahn said he had been getting the majority of practice snaps with the No. 2 offense in recent weeks.
“I just stayed ready,” Johnson said. “If I was going to redshirt or not, I was still going to be happy. I still was going to improve at practice and help the team. You never know what will happen with players.”
It was a good game for Johnson to get his feet wet against a badly overmatched opponent.
Johnson threw three touchdown passes to stake Auburn to a 42-3 halftime lead en route to the Tigers’ most points since a 62-24 victory over Tennessee-Chattanooga in 2010.
Johnson rolled right and threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jay Prosch, threw a deep ball on the money for a 46-yard touchdown to Ricardo Louis and hit fellow freshman Tony Stevens for a 22-yarder before the half.
He added a 3-yarder to Quan Bray in the third quarter and ran for 26 yards on three carries. Corey Grant also gained 83 yards on five runs.
“He handled it all very maturely,” Prosch said. “I remember starting when I was a true freshman. Even if it’s not a huge game, you still get those jitters. I think he stepped up confidently and handled the offense like anyone else would have.”
Richard Sigmon got a 49-yard field goal in the first quarter for Western Carolina, which held onto the ball for six minutes, 23 seconds on the drive to keep Auburn’s offense off the field.
Starter Troy Mitchell completed 3 of 6 passes for 73 yards and was intercepted once. Backup Eddie Sullivan played much of the game and was 3-of-11 passing for 73 yards. Both added 15 rushing yards apiece despite being sacked a combined four times.
Auburn right tackle Patrick Miller and tight end/receiver Brandon Fulse didn’t play because of off-the-field issues, Malzahn said.