COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It wasn’t flawless. There is still work to be done. But, much like the first three games of the season, No. 8 Auburn (4-0) made the plays necessary to check another tough game off their list, and into the win column, defeating Texas A&M 28-20 Saturday afternoon at Kyle Field.
No, they don’t look like a playoff contender, yet. But, the Tigers came into one of the tougher environments in college football, as four-point underdogs to the No. 17 team in the country, and left with an eight-point win that was never really in question, and one that should’ve been by double digits. So what else can you ask for at this juncture in the season, especially when you consider the fact that Saturday’s contest was a true freshman quarterback’s first SEC road start.
There is still room to grow, yes, but anytime you kick off conference play with a road win against a ranked opponent, it speaks volumes. Auburn snapped an 8-game losing streak against ranked teams on the road and picked up its fourth win in College Station, remaining unbeaten when playing at Kyle Field.
For Malzahn, it’s all about the little things, the week-by-week progression.
“We’re still not there, but our team is growing up and they’re getting more confidence,” Malzahn said after Saturday’s win. “… This is a very tough place to play. I’m really proud of our team. They showed a lot of guts, they showed a lot of guts, they played Auburn football.”
Here’s the Sunday report card:
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Bo Nix didn’t put up flashy numbers, he didn’t have to make extraordinary throws, but what he did do is just as important, and often overlooked. The freshman quarterback, in his first SEC game on the road, stayed composed and poised in a hostile environment. Nix managed the game, didn’t turn the ball over and made the simple plays to come away with a win. That’s all you can ask of a 19-year-old kid, under the circumstances.
He finished 12-of-20 for 100 yards passing and one touchdown, and continued to show off his mobility running the ball 12 times for 38 yards, most notably on the 6-yard keeper that sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. He gets a minus for the overthrows; the freshman will have to get better throwing the long ball, but that will come with time.
RUNNING BACKS: C+
Let me just start by saying that this grade isn’t negative, it’s just due to the fact that the Auburn running backs weren’t leaned on heavily until late because of the game plan Malzahn had for Texas A&M. And, when they were used, it was just Boobee Whitlow in the third and fourth quarters. Saturday was a different approach than what we are used to seeing from the Auburn rushing attack, at least for the first half. The Tigers’ leading rusher entering the weekend (Whitlow) had zero carries in the first quarter and just two carries in the second, which was part of the reason Auburn running backs had only 7 yards on eight carries heading into halftime, but some of that was by design.
Apart from making sure Whitlow would be fresh for the second half, Malzahn also said after the game that their plan was to stretch the Aggie defense with sweeps and outside runs to the edge, so as to avoid the interior blitzes. That plan worked to perfection on the Anthony Schwartz’s 57-yard reverse that went for a touchdown on the opening drive. Malzahn’s plan was to try and use players like Schwartz, Stove and Shivers on the perimeter early as opposed to inside zones.
Once Texas A&M was forced to extend and spread its defense, Auburn rolled with Whitlow to carry them to the finish line in the second half. He finished with 18 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown, with 12 of those attempts coming in the fourth quarter. Whitlow’s patience and wherewithal to know when to hit the hole was on display Saturday, as he continues to be that workhorse the Tigers’ offense relies on down the stretch.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B+
The Auburn wide receiving corps was back to full strength for the first time all season Saturday afternoon, and it had its game changers back in full effect. Seth Williams (shoulder) and Schwartz (wrist) both were on the field together, and both made significant impacts for the offense. These two are massive for the offense, whether they touch the ball or not, it opens up so much for Malzahn’s play calling. Especially for a freshman quarterback, it was essential for Nix to have that safety blanket of Schwartz and Williams to throw to and to trust in. Without the two, who knows how the game finishes.
Schwartz made a difference with his feet, rushing for a 57-yard touchdown on the opening drive of the game that set the tone for the Auburn offense. Williams made an impact the more conventional way hauling in four receptions for 47 yards, and one touchdown. John Samuel Shenker tallied the other receiving touchdown of the day on his second catch of the season.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
For the most part, the offensive line held their own against one of the better, albeit young, interior defenses in the conference. The pass protection was improved and gave Nix time to sit in the pocket, allowing just one sack, and the run blocking, especially down the stretch on key drives, was part of the reason the Auburn offense could stay on the field for longer, time-consuming drives.
This grade is slightly above average, so Auburn fans can’t be too disappointed, but the reason it isn’t any higher is because of three penalties. Mike Horton was flagged twice for being an ineligible player downfield, and the entire right side of the line was called for false start in the third quarter. The little things need to be tightened, but overall it was a solid outing.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
The big boys in the middle feasted Saturday, early and often. The Texas A&M offensive line was simply overpowered and there was nothing they could do to stop Derrick Brown & co. Whenever this group of linemen play at this kind of level, it’s hard for any unit to stop them. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele just has too many weapons at his disposal for an average line to prepare for.
In the second quarter, Texas A&M, had minus-2 rushing yards and had just 12 yards heading into the locker room. Auburn held the Aggies to 56 yards rushing for the game, a series low, and finished with three sacks and seven tackles-for-loss. Brown accounted for two sacks and Tyrone Truesdell added the other.
The only reason the grade isn’t completely sparkling is because of the four offside penalties, two of them coming from Big Kat Bryant. That’s too many stupid mistakes for a team wanting to be a contender.
Fast and physical. That’s what K.J. Britt said it would take and that’s what the Auburn linebackers did. Britt, once again, led his unit with seven tackles, which tied a career high, and one tackle-for-loss.
When the linebackers and defensive lineman on this team are playing as a cohesive unit, I’m not sure how you beat them. They have the power to stuff the run up the middle, and also the speed to run you down on the edge or cover the underneath routes. And, there isn’t a weak spot. Along with Britt, Zakoby McClain added four tackles, while Owen Pappoe and Chandler Wooten each had two apiece.
This grade is so low because of the standard that this experienced secondary holds themselves to. Noah Igbinoghene was the lone bright spot leading the team with eight tackles. Javaris Davis had two pass break-ups and Daniel Thomas forced an important fumble to start the second half, then recovered it himself to give the offense advantageous field position which led to a touchdown.
But overall, Kellen Mond exposed this pass defense that was considered a strength heading into the season and showed some concerning holes that need to be fixed with SEC play getting underway. The Tigers gave up 335 yards and two touchdowns on 31-of-49 passing from Mond. Simply put, Mond just had too many easy throws where Auburn gave the Aggie receivers too much cushion, and yes I realize some of these yards came in garbage time, but it ended up being a one possession game. The lackadaisical play from the cornerbacks and safeties should be a focal point this week in practice.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
It was a fairly uneventful day for the Auburn special teams. Anders Carlson wasn’t needed, except for extra points, and the coverage on kickoffs and punts were under control. Arryn Siposs punted eight times for 350 yards, with a long of 54 and an average of 43.8. Igbinoghene returned one kick for 31 yards and Christian Tutt looked elusive once again returning two punts for 52 yards.
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