Maybe the beginning of Auburn’s miraculous run to Saturday’s SEC championship game against Missouri began a year ago this week on the turf of Biloxi Indian Stadium in Mississippi.
That’s where Garden City (Kan.) Community College improbably won the Mississippi Bowl on a last-second field goal. The play was set up by a 62-yard pass that was tipped to wide receiver Rodriguez Coleman, now at Kansas, who made the catch on his back.
The ball was heaved by Nick Marshall, Garden City’s wildly athletic quarterback who now guides an Auburn team that has advanced to the SEC title game on similar wings and prayers in its previous two games against Georgia and Alabama.
Adding to the drama that day in Mississippi, Marshall had left the game in the third quarter after taking a hit. Garden City coach Matt Miller, who was the program’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last season, picks up the story.
“There was about 40 seconds left, and Nick comes over and says he’s fine,” Miller said. “We put him in, and he throws this bomb to Coleman, who makes an amazing catch. The ball gets tipped, (Coleman’s) down, but he kicks it to his chest for the catch.”
Oh, and then kicker Tyler Peterson, who had made one of four field goals on the season, kicked a 32-yarder with four seconds remaining for a 31-29 victory.
“It really was an amazing finish,” Miller said.
Kind of like a tipped 73-yard reception that beat Georgia in the final minute or a missed field-goal return from deep in the end zone for a last-play touchdown that defeated Alabama.
It’s easy to see why Auburn’s Tigers will be the rooting choice of the Garden City football office.
Marshall arrived in Kansas after spending his freshman season at Georgia. He had been a football and basketball star at Wilcox County High in Rochelle, Ga., passing for 32 touchdowns as a senior. But with Aaron Murray entrenched at quarterback, the Bulldogs moved Marshall to cornerback.
He may eventually have been Murray’s successor, and there was talk Marshall could be the next Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida State who spent more than a decade in the NBA.
But Marshall’s career veered when he got into trouble. He and two teammates reportedly were alleged to have stolen from a teammate and were dismissed from the team. Marshall was never charged, but he needed a new start — and he wanted to return to quarterback.
Garden City became the gateway.
The school didn’t have anybody on the coaching staff who had worked with anybody as athletic as Marshall. But Garden City had just hired Jeff Kelly, an all-Big 12 linebacker at Kansas State in the late 1990s, as its defensive coordinator.
Kelly knew Miller, who at the time was working in private business in Tulsa, Okla., had been a Wildcats’ graduate assistant and had worked with quarterbacks — including an athlete from the junior college ranks named Michael Bishop.
In 1997, Bishop became the starter and helped guide K-State to an 11-1 record, including a Fiesta Bowl victory over Donovan McNabb and Syracuse.
The next season, the Wildcats started 11-0 and were poised to play in the first BCS title game until an upset loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 championship game. Bishop averaged 299 yards of total offense per game and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race.
“Jeff told me that Nick was as close to Michael Bishop that he had seen,” Miller said.
When Miller arrived, he saw that and more.
“I thought he had Michael Bishop’s strength and Ell Roberson’s speed,” Miller said.
Kansas State followers understand the impact of that observation. Roberson left Kansas State after the 2003 season as the program’s career leader in total offense and second in career rushing.
Marshall’s season at Garden City had made Miller a believer. In a 7-4 season, Marshall averaged 444 yards of total offense per game. He was chosen Jayhawk Conference offensive player of the year.
Still, when Marshall signed with Auburn, he was no sure bet to start. Four candidates were bidding to operate coach Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle attack.
Miller was contacted by an Alabama reporter in the preseason and said that Marshall could be better than any current SEC quarterback, including the returning Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
“They thought I was crazy, but I was only going on what I had seen with Nick,” Miller said. “I had seen him shake off a 300-pound defender and throw a 75-yard pass. I knew he would win the job.”
The believers grew with every Auburn victory. From winless in the SEC last season to a division champion.
Marshall, who has passed for 1,627 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 922 yards and 10 scores, isn’t putting up the numbers that earned Cam Newton the Heisman in Auburn’s 2010 national championship season, but the similarities are striking.
Both starred in their first year in the program after transferring from junior college, won division titles, beat teams with their legs and arms, and had Malzahn on the staff — he was Newton’s offensive coordinator.
Marshall reminds Missouri coach Gary Pinkel of his best duel-threat quarterback, Brad Smith, who finished his career in 2005 as the program’s career total offense leader.
“You’ve got to play well and make sure you have somebody assigned to (Marshall) or he’s going to hurt you bad,” Pinkel said. “He’s going to make some plays, but hopefully we’ll be able to reduce the number of plays he makes. Any play, he can change the game, so that’s scary.”
An even scarier thought for Auburn? Miller tried steering Marshall to Kansas State. Just think, the next Michael Bishop to replace Collin Klein, another total offense machine.
“I tried about 300 times to get him to go,” Miller said. “But he’s an SEC guy. K-State was facing an uphill battle.”
The Wildcats made out all right, platooning Jake Waters and Daniel Sams into a seven-victory regular season. And it worked out well for Miller as well.
When last season’s coach, Jeff Tatum, left to become the coach at Mississippi Delta Community College, Miller got the call to become his successor after only one year on the staff.
“I have Nick Marshall to thank for that,” Miller said. “I’m his biggest fan.”