No. 15 Auburn will look to get back on track this homecoming weekend, as the Tigers have a date with the Mercer Bears, a squad hailing from the FCS’s Southern Conference.
Auburn hopes to escape the shadow of its own offense, which performed historically bad in a loss at Clemson on Sept. 9. Sophomore quarterback Jarett Stidham and company compiled just 117 total yards, a low for Malzahn as both a coordinator and head coach at Auburn.
The defense, on the other hand, dominated the first half, pitching a shutout until Clemson QB Kelly Bryant orchestrated a two-minute drill before the half to put the home Tigers up 7-6. Auburn’s defense allowed another touchdown by Bryant in the third quarter before shutting the junior down until the final whistle.
Even with the introduction of Stidham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, the Auburn offense appears to be going in circles, with shades of 2015 and early 2016 occasionally flashing when the ball is snapped.
Kevin Steele’s defense, on the other hand, is playing with their helmets on fire. Senior defensive back Tray Matthews described the stark difference by claiming that in practice, the defense’s attitude is “turned up,” while the offense appears more mellow.
Whatever the current difference in energy, Matthews ensured that there is no internal discretion between the two sides of the ball.
“I tried to pick up some of the guys on offense,” Matthews said following the loss. “I picked up Jarrett. It seemed like he was in good spirits. We’re a big family and nothing will ever divide us. We’re Auburn, we stick together and nothing will divide us.”
Senior linebacker Tre’ Williams harped on Matthews’ point, assuring that the two squads are there to help each other and vice versa.
“A lot of people are going to try to break us up between offense and defense,” Williams said. “But the thing is, we’re the Auburn Tigers. Not who played well and who didn’t. The Auburn Tigers lost this game.”
A showdown with Mercer couldn’t have come at a better time for the struggling Auburn offense, seeing as Vegas didn’t even bother to offer a spread for the contest. Last season, Auburn’s offense dismantled their annual FCS opponent, Alabama A&M to the tune of 55-0 behind backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson.
Auburn’s 2017 homecoming opponent boasts a talented young quarterback in Kaelan Riley, who accounted for five total touchdowns in the Bears’ season-opening win over Jacksonville University.
Mercer will enter Jordan-Hare with an identical 1-1 record as the Tigers. In week two, the Bears fell at home to Wofford, a squad then ranked No. 10 in the FCS.
In the Southern Conference opener, Mercer jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead thanks to a stellar first half from Riley, however were outscored 21-6 in the second half of play. Riley cooled off in the second half, as the redshirt-freshman tossed a trio of interceptions following the break.
Despite being labeled as overmatched against the Tigers, the Mercer defense touts depth and experience, returning 10 of 11 defensive starters from the 2016 team.
“We have talent at every position,” senior safety Zach Jackson said. “Everybody’s capable of making big-time plays. We have a lot of big-time playmakers on this defense. Not just one of us is capable of making a play. We’ve got ball hawks and big-time players all over the field.”
Malzahn said in his weekly press conference that runningback Kamryn Pettway will see the field against the Bears, however Pettway’s running mate Kerryon Johnson will remain sidelined.
Auburn will defer to third-stringer Kam Martin for much of the contest, and Martin will look to find similar success as his Georgia Southern game, when the tailback carried the rock 14 times for 136 yards and a 61-yard touchdown.
Stidham will face a much lighter load in terms of pressure, as Clemson’s defensive line sacked the quarterback 11 times in Death Valley. Auburn has yet to find a go-to receiver, as the team is currently led by Will Hastings, who has snared six passes for 80 yards and a score through two weeks of play.
Following the homecoming game, Auburn will travel to Colombia, Mo. for their conference opener against the Missouri Tigers. However, Malzahn recognizes that the first step to improvement is to take the remainder of the schedule one game at a time.
“Our mind is on Mercer,” Malzahn said. “We're going to play well and we need to improve each week. We have the makings of a good football team."