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Position Group Grades: Penn State

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NCAA Football: Auburn at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks: B-

No the numbers weren’t great. Completing just over half of your passes for 5 yards per attempt and no scores isn’t usually going to get you a win against a good opponent. But, as a Bo Nix apologist, I have to say I think he played well enough to win. His ball placement on several throws was perfect, yet he received no help from his receivers (more on that in a minute). He took care of the ball, played within the pocket, picked up a few yards on the ground when needed, and really only made two bad decisions that stick out to me. Of course, the near pick-six would have made this game a lot different had it not been dropped, and we may never know what actually happened on that 4th and 2 play. I’m not convinced there were “4 or 5 reads”, and I’m not going to blame Bo for that play call.

I’m not going to say Bo played well. But, he played slightly above my expectations, and that should have been enough to get a win.

Running Backs: A+

The only complaint here is that we didn’t see enough of them. Tank Bigsby put up another 100+ yard game with two (deep breathes...) scores in what is becoming the expected stat line for him. It’s incredible to watch from a guy who’s just now played one season’s worth of games. Jarquez Hunter, continued to clown on college defenses with his career worst 9 carries for 63 yards.

The decision to retain Cadillac Williams with the new coaching staff is paying dividends early.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: D-

This was... a tough performance. With the eye test alone, this was a downright bad performance by the receivers. Guys couldn’t get open, and even when they did, there were very few plays made on the ball. Two instances specifically stand out:

  • On Auburn’s second drive, Shedrick Jackson beat his corner on a go route, but just tripped as the ball was coming to him. This would have put Auburn across mid-field with a chance to put up a second score before Penn State.
  • In the 4th quarter, down 28-20 at the Penn State 34, Bo lofted a pass to Demetris Robertson along the side line that should’ve been an easy touchdown. Instead, when Robertson got past his man, he never found the ball and it landed out of bounds just over his head.

There was also the trick play to open the half, which while I don’t think was the worst call, obviously had a major backfire when Kobe Hudson fumbled the ball. I hate it for him, and he was so close to making a huge play on the cutback, but it really put Auburn behind the 8 ball the rest of the game.

The only thing that keeps this from being a solid F is the play of John Samuel Shenker, who had a solid game from the tight end position with 5 catches/62 yards.

Offensive Line: B+

I was almost inclined to give this group an “A” just based on a curve for how we’ve talked about them for a while now. They weren’t perfect, but like Bo Nix, they played well enough to win. They created a ton of room for Bigsby and Hunter, and Bo didn’t see a ton of pressure or take any real shots. On the road against a good defense like Penn State, that’s impressive. Nick Brahms specifically had a really solid game in the middle.

Defensive Line: C

I’ll give them an A for rush defense and F for pass rush, if that’s allowed. This group is showing they can really shut down an opposing run game, only allowing Penn State to run for 2.5 yards per carry. The problem is, that number isn’t sack-adjusted. Not because of any agenda by me to make the rush defense look better, but because there were no sacks. The only pressure on Sean Clifford all night came at the end of the first half, when Clifford took a shot to the chest and lofted up an interception. with 15 seconds left.

I haven’t gone back and looked at how much blitz help the line received, but the fact is the front four very rarely got off their blocks to get into the backfield. Hopefully there’s a shift in defensive game-planning coming up before conference play.

Linebackers: B

This was a sort of mixed bag of results for the linebackers. On the one hand, with the talent in that group, I expect big plays in crucial moments. Zakoby McClain was, as usual, all over the field, and even helped stop a late touchdown by pinning down a diving Penn State rusher. Yet, somehow it was targeting.

Still, I have to dock a few points for not adding any sacks, and getting sucked in a few too many times on play-action.

Defensive Backs: D

This has been the hot-button issue of the week for Auburn fans. Sean Clifford, who we dubbed Big 10 Bo Nix, had a career game going 28-32 for 280 yards and 2 TDs. Penn State tight ends ran uncovered in the defensive backfield. The Auburn defense record a grand total of zero pass breakups for the first time in six years.

I don’t know how much of this was due to gameplan versus execution, as the Derek Mason defense has shown a desire to play a soft zone and keep receivers in front of them. Regardless, it was a poor showing, and one that Ole Miss and Alabama will be licking their chops at while watching film later in the season.

Special Teams: A

No complaints here, aside from a blocking in the back call which negated a solid Robertson punt return. Carlson was again perfect for 8 points, and Oscar Chapman had a solid night punting the ball for just under 49 yards per punt.

Coaching: C-

Josh Black

It’s going to take a long time for me to understand some of the truly head-scratching decisions from this coaching staff on Saturday night. Not interested in saying much more than that for the lede so let’s get to it:

The BAD:

  1. I said it in my Snap Judgement and I’ll say it here again, the identity of this football team offensively is on the ground and to stay ahead of the sticks. To that end, you had an opportunity to man up on that defense to open the second half…and the Harsin/Bobo braintrust got cute. All it did was ultimately cost us the football game. I’ll never understand it, especially when you come right back out there and line up to pound the ball 75 yards on a truly beautiful touchdown drive immediately after setting your defense up to fail. I just don’t get it.
  2. Throwing a fade on 4th down at the goalline? Again, I’ll never understand the desire to run a low percentage play there, especially to the short side of the field. Run the ball, move the pocket, create some misdirection, or just do anything but that. I’ll never understand it.
  3. I absolutely hated the end of half offense trying to press for points. We should have given up a pick 6 thanks to Penn State’s defense reading Bo’s eyes. Why press when you’re in a 1-score game, there’s too much time left, Penn State has 2 timeouts, and you get the ball to start the 2nd half? We ended up punting without making Penn State even take a timeout, and are fortunate that we got an INT to essentially kill the half. Look, I’m all for being aggressive, but pick your spot better, coach. In that environment, take it to the half and get your adjustments in. If you had been at home, sure, try and cut their throat. Just too risky for my liking in that spot and we’re insanely fortunate it didn’t bite us in the ass.
  4. Whether it’s Kevin Steele or Derek Mason, it’s abundantly clear this defense cannot defend against the RPO. Too often I saw safeties just frozen in place and wideouts just run right by them. It’s too early for me to call this 2021 defense undisciplined, but it’s clear the guys that have been here for a minute do not handle the RPO well based on the last 3 B1G opponents doing the same thing to us, along with what Alabama has done to us for 3 years running. It’s a problem that I don’t know if the coaches can fix, but I will say that it’s really possible to balance man and zone coverages instead of seemingly just flat out committing to one or the other for 60 minutes. I didn’t like the gameplan one bit. That being said, Penn State’s QB had a lot to do with that too, and he deserves all the credit for playing an excellent game. It’s hard to have only 4 incompletions against air. Scary thing is that we’re going to see better WRs for half of our upcoming schedule at least. This is a problem.
  5. I’m all for giving seniors a shot to shine for the leadership they show, but it’s time to see some fresh faces line up at WR. Capers, Canion, and Evans deserve more snaps if this is the best we are going to see against quality competition from Shed Jackson.
  6. I think it’s also time to rethink the defensive line/Buck a bit. Whether it’s TD/Hall not being able to get home, or Burks/Harris/Fair getting blocked out of the play, we’ve got to find a way to get some pressure off the edge and have more aggression on the inside.

The GOOD:

  1. Hell yeah welcome back to Auburn, tight ends! John Samuel Shenker played his ass off Saturday night. Same for Luke Deal. Those two show that they love to hit in blocking and in Shenker’s case had some of the most reliable hands we’ve seen this season. This is exactly what we’ve been waiting for and it is so nice to have a coaching staff appreciate the position.
  2. Nick Brahams belongs in the SEC. I’ve been quick to criticize this offensive line for years now, and my major issue is that they just haven’t been up to the standard for this conference. Last night Nick Brahams did his job in bailing out his guards in pass protection as well as blitz pickup. He’s not the athlete we’ve seen from a Dismukes type, but he’s as smart as they come, and that’s the number one thing you need out of your center. Will Friend’s efforts to teach this group have clearly paid off with the future pilot.
  3. Loved seeing how our coaches trusted a true freshman in Jarquez Hunter in this environment. Dude can flat play and is honestly the right option between he and Shivers to spell Tank. I love what we’re seeing out of Carnell’s runningback room, and think it is only going to get better as the season goes along.
  4. For all of Bo Nix’s flaws, being uncoachable isn’t one of them. 57% completion is just short of the 60% we desperately need from him, but he didn’t lose us this game, and generally commanded the offense with authority - almost pick 6 aside (but again, don’t put him in that position!). It’s a truly great meme, but the truth is that Bobo has helped him tremendously at improving in this new offense.

BIG PICTURE:

  1. Far less confident in Harsin and co.‘s ability to go into Tiger Stadium in 2 weeks and win knowing that we just showed our ass against an RPO based offense. With Arkansas’ improvement and Ole Miss legitimately having a shot to win the West (their defense has improved enough to where I’m ready to talk about it), LSU may be the most winnable SEC game for this team until…Mississippi State. Holy hell. We don’t just need him to win that game to break the streak, we need him to win that game because this could turn and turn quickly. I do not want to think about what Georgia’s defense will do to this offense.
  2. Nice to be in the spotlight. Had you seized the moment you’d be the buzz of college football today. Maybe not being that too quickly is a good thing because we would be set up to crater back down to earth, but it would have certainly helped for the overall direction of the program in the short term. That being said, losing this game is not what we will judge Bryan Harsin on in 2021. He will be judged just like those before him on LSU, Georgia, and Alabama.
  3. I’m legitimately worried about the personnel of this football team. We do not have sufficient depth along the offensive line, and are set to lose some real key playmakers on defense, especially so if Pappoe declares. 2022 could truly be the bottoming out of our personnel issues that started up front offensively during Herb Hand’s time at Auburn. We need to knock it out of the park in the portal along the offensive line, otherwise what could be a 5 to 7 win year this season could really be a downward slope that we don’t know the floor to until we wrap up next year in Tuscaloosa. We don’t have enough guys now. We lose a lot of them. We cannot depend on freshman at the line of scrimmage. This is a problem.