- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Auburn’s offense has piled up big numbers the past two weeks: First in sacks allowed and then in turnovers committed.

The 15th-ranked Tigers have added another troubling stat with two players gone from the team heading into the Southeastern Conference opener Saturday night at Missouri. A day after coach Gus Malzahn dismissed former starting quarterback Sean White, he announced Tuesday that onetime top recruit defensive lineman Byron Cowart has left , also.

Malzahn kicked White off the team following the backup’s arrest on a public intoxication charge. He had previously been suspended for the first two games. That leaves Auburn with only one scholarship quarterback behind Jarrett Stidham, freshman Malik Willis, who hasn’t played in a game.

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“It’s difficult. Everybody loves Sean around here,” wide receiver Ryan Davis said Tuesday. “Sean is definitely one of the team favorites, so it’s sad to see him go. We wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”

The good news for the Tigers is they’re still 2-1 with the only blemish a 14-6 loss at No. 2 Clemson. The defense is the biggest reason for that, ranking second nationally in total yards allowed.

The offense has been nowhere near that good. The Tigers allowed 11 sacks in the Clemson game . They committed five turnovers against Mercer to help turn an expected laugher against an FCS team into a sloppy 24-10 survival game.

Stidham had his best game with a 32-of-37, 364-yard passing performance against Mercer but didn’t have a touchdown pass. Auburn is banking on the former Baylor quarterback being the team’s best passer since Cam Newton left after his Heisman Trophy, national title run in 2010, though Nick Marshall made plenty of plays running and throwing in 2013 and 2014.

Neither White nor Jeremy Johnson managed to approach that playmaking ability.

A running game that has been the offense’s saving grace in recent seasons has sputtered at times, too. Kamryn Pettway has been the only running back to carry the ball in two straight games.

Now, Kerryon Johnson returns for the first time since sustaining a right hamstring injury in the second quarter of the opener against Georgia Southern. Malzahn’s offenses have averaged a league-best 262.9 rushing yards in Malzahn’s first four seasons but so far the Tigers are producing a middle-of-the-pack 178.3 yards per game.

“That’s my biggest concern right now,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to be able to run the football better. Obviously Clemson has a great defense and they shut us down in the run game but last week we didn’t execute like we need to and we’ve got to do a better job of executing in the run game because you get in league play, you’re going to have the football effectively to win consistently.

“Our coaches understand that and that’s really been a big point of emphasis.”

So are protecting Stidham and hanging onto the ball.

Willis, a 6-foot-1, 202-pound January enrollee, would have been in line for a possible redshirt year except in an emergency situation. That almost certainly isn’t a possibility now. Willis is more of a running threat than Stidham.

“We feel good about him moving forward if something were to happen to Jarrett,” Malzahn said.

Davis is set to get some work at quarterback, where he played in high school.

He’s leading the SEC with 19 receptions, though they’ve only gone for 123 yards. Walk-on Devin Adams’ only career completion went for minus-1 yard against Georgia Southern.

The defense loses some depth with Cowart’s departure but shouldn’t be impacted much barring injuries. He has nine tackles in two-plus seasons.

Cowart had been a reserve since his arrival as the nation’s No. 1 recruit , according to ratings by ESPN and Rivals.com.

Byron Cowart has come to me numerous times over the last couple of weeks disappointed with his playing time,” Malzahn said. “(Monday) he came to me and said he wants to quit and pursue other opportunities. So we wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”


More AP college football: https://collegefootball.ap.org and https://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

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