On the one hand, the numbers don’t look great. Nix completed just over half of his passes (9/17) for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns, and posted a paltry 6.4 yards per attempt. However, Nix received absolutely no help from his pass catchers early in the game. Two drops stand out vividly, being the pass to Newton which should have been a walk-in 25 yard touchdown and a dropped screen to Bigsby which could have sparked a big gain. SEC StatCat shows Bo posted a 75% accuracy rating, and that receivers generated 0 yards on off target passes while costing the team 39 yards on drops. An 11/17 day with 147 yards and 3 touchdowns would look a lot better in the box score.
Nix surely didn’t look as crisp as he did against Akron, but I still think this is a significantly improved Bo from previous years.
Running Backs: A-
I’m certainly not going to quibble with two players running for 100+ again. The running back room put up 343 yards on 36 carries with two touchdowns (I’m taking out Bo’s two runs and Robertson’s end-around touchdown), and there were plenty of explosive runs. Most of the unsuccessful runs in the first half were due to missed blocking assignments, which were cleared up in a big way in the third quarter. Hunter’s record-setting run was an absolute picture perfect zone run. He made one cut hit ludicrous speed to the extent that no one even closed the gap on him in the final 40 yards.
The only reason this one is an A- is for Tank’s drop. That was 100% a touchdown. There was a defender close by, but Tank has to catch that.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B-
Not having Ja’Varrius Johnson limited the upside of this group on Saturday, and despite the issues with drops listed above, they weren’t without some highlights. The standout was Demetris Robertson, who had a career day on just four total touches. Robertson hauled in two fabulous touchdown receptions in connection with Bo Nix, extended the opening drive of the game with a crisp 27 yard gain on 3rd & long, and took a sweep to the house for 36 yards and another rushing score in the second half. The veteran receiver showed he has just about every tool in his bag for this offense.
Malcolm Johnson also got loose behind the defense for a 49 yard touchdown pass from TJ Finley. He’s not been one of the top four guys in terms of snaps or targets, but he’s established a strong role in the offense with his elite speed.
Offensive Line: C-
Despite looking fantastic against Akron, the offensive line struggled at times against the Hornets. I’ll attribute some of it to the 11 AM sleepies, but it’s never encouraging to have two drives stall out in the red zone to open the game because your line can’t open holes against a bad FCS team. That combined with a handful of false start and holding penalties earns them a bad grade.
But as the old addage goes, C’s get degrees, and against Alabama State that degree is still a 62-0 blowout.
Defensive Line: A
No complaints here. The line stuffed any threat of a ground game from the Hornets, allowing just 46 yards on 29 rushes, good for less than 1.6 yards per carry. I’m not including the EDGE defenders in this group, opting instead to pool them with the linebackers, so the d-line technically only tallied one tackle for loss (Marquis Burks). However, Auburn linemen were pushing into the backfield and disrupting the ASU offense all day, and created opportunities more often than not for the linebackers to run free.
The most consistent group on the team had another great game Saturday, with 9 tackles for loss by 9 different linebackers. In a shock to absolutely nobody, Zakoby McClain led the team with 10 tackles, and he was everywhere when he was on the field. The Auburn defense only recorded two sacks (Leota, Moultry) against the Hornets, but that was due to QB Ryan Nettles doing a good job of getting the ball out fast. State was only able to gain 4.5 yards per attempt, and a lot of that is due to the linebackers living in the offensive backfield.
Defensive Backs: B
I guess this was pretty much the season opener for the secondary since they got absolutely no work in last week against Akron. The 11 AM kick coupled with that fact showed that they were a little rusty and it was evident early on. While Alabama State was never able to effectively attack Auburn’s defense as a whole, they did complete some passes on the starting cornerbacks, and Ryan Nettles completed about two thirds of his passes overall. Now, there weren’t really any yards after the catch, and ASU only threw for 130 yards, but some of the effort was troubling at the start. Roger McCreary got bullied in the first half at times, but he made up for it in spades with his pick six after halftime. Like much of yesterday, I’m chalking up any Hornet success to Auburn not preparing in the slightest for them and looking totally ahead to Penn State. Even in what I would classify as a “B” effort, the shutout still stood.
Special Teams: A
When things weren’t going smoothly for the offense Saturday, it was the special teams that really showed out and made sure Alabama State had no chance of even considering an upset. On ASU’s second possession when Auburn was up 3-0, walk-on Baron Lester blocked and recovered a punt on the State 25.
Later in the second quarter, with Auburn only up 13-0 and the Hornets driving down inside the Auburn 5, Colby Wooden came in hot around the edge and blocked a field goal. Nehemiah Pritchett returned the block 80 yards to the house to put Auburn up 20-0.
The punt return team contributed 44 yards on 3 returns, although State punter Aubrey Grace did throw out a few solid punts, including a 67 yarder downed a the 6 in the 3rd quarter.
The kicking game was clean as well, with Carlson picking up 13 points (2 FG, 7 XP). Backup Ben Patton became the first #96 in program history to score a point with a 4th quarter XP.
11AM kicks are always dreadful for the home team, as everything in your planner/schedule is bumped up to ridiculous hours of the morning. It’s not just a 9AM Tiger Walk, it’s normally a 6 or 7AM breakfast at the team hotel and breakout sessions before taking the bus to Auburn. That is a challenge no matter who you are playing.
But at this school and in this league, it does not matter as the expectation is to come right out of the gate and beat an overmatched opponent like they stole something. That wasn’t necessarily the case Saturday, as it was clear the team was asleep at the wheel. Pat Dye and Gene Stallings got into an argument on Finebaum about 20 years ago with Coach Dye arguing you could only truly get your team up for a game 4-6 times a year, and that games like this were more about the challenge of overcoming your own adversity since you were never motivated to go out there and beat up an overmatched opponent. Stallings was on the side of being up for every game on your schedule. Both are right, but when you deal with human beings, I would say Coach Dye’s approach is more realistic.
Since we were sleepwalking through this game, halftime became the centerpiece of judgement for this new staff, to see how the kids would respond to a lackluster start. I would say a 35-point 3rd quarter is one hell of a response. No, this Auburn team didn’t come out with a fire in the 2nd half like they were playing a different team in the state of Alabama, but they did sharpen up on some lazy play to do the only thing that is expected of this fanbase when playing an FCS opponent.
Special call out to Bert Watts, the fiery special teams coordinator who has ensured the days of a coach saying “bullcrap”, “dern”, or “freakin” are over at Auburn. The man knows how to peel paint with this words and I would wager he used many of them in a positive light on Saturday for how the special teams performed. Harsin’s mentality of putting starters on special teams is the reason why a shutout was preserved in a FG block, and is indicative of the identity we all want to see out of the special teams unit. Gone are the days where your 3rd string linebacker is on kickoff coverage.
My one criticism is not so much on the slow start as it was on the passiveness of the offensive line in pushing piles for Tank early. They clearly wanted no part of it, and did not earn the right to go for it on 4th and 1 when Anders kicked one of his FGs. I don’t view that as an “Alabama State thing” so much as I do an “identity thing”. It should be instinctive. And it’s something that I’d like to see change. It’s not a technique or a fundamental criticism this week. It’s that they need to get meaner. We need to see a killer instinct from this group if we intend on beating Penn State in a road environment, that while difficult, is one this group, along with Bo Nix, should be all too familiar with after their trip to the Swamp 2 years ago. They need to come out ready to hit until the echo of the whistle with a bully mentality if we expect to see a new Auburn in a road environment. We were never going to see that in full force against Alabama State, but the little things give you signs of what is to come. And that little bit of lackadaisical attitude on Saturday needs to be exposed on film today by Will Friend. I have no doubt he has some created ways to get their mind right. Let’s just hope it sticks.