This past week's Saturday night lights looked like an unfamiliar sight for Auburn football fans. For the first time since 2018, someone other than Bo Nix took snaps at quarterback for those in orange and blue as the Tigers made the trip to Columbia for their final SEC East matchup of the season.
T.J. Finley made his first start as an Auburn Tiger after transferring away from LSU and Ed Orgeron's program last season. While Tank Bisgby led the way with a season-high performance and he threw for just one touchdown, Finley seemed to be able to drive the field on a consistent basis and positioned his offense within USC's 35-yard line five times throughout the match.
On Monday, Harsin praised Finley's performance but noted that improvements are still needed.
“I thought he was solid,“ Harsin said. “There were some good things in there, there’s some things that we need to correct.”
The offensive game plan for Finley was predicated on simple check downs and out routes to the sidelines, with which he found early success as Auburn took a 14-0 lead while still in the first quarter. Presumably trying to keep the ball out of harm's way, Finley avoided targeting the middle of the field and threw between the hashes just three times out of his 32 total pass attempts, according to Secstatcat.
It was apparent that he was reading through his progressions one-by-one and took the time to set his feet, but he had trouble with accuracy, completing just under 55% of his passes against a defense that usually gives up more than 10% that. A year prior, Finley had an 88% completion percentage in an LSU blowout win over South Carolina.
Harsin touched on something that not a lot of people would realize when watching any quarterback in their first few starts or when coming back from injury:
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"One of the things about the quarterback position is you're not getting hit in practice," Harsin said.
Not a dig at Finley, but being able to stand firm in a pocket in practice isn't the same as doing it on Saturday nights, and it can be hard to replicate that intensity in practice without risking an injury to your quarterback.
Under pressure against USC, the 19-year-old went three for 10 on passing attempts. With Auburn's offensive line constantly rotating players in-and-out due to injuries and depth issues, Finley will have to adapt fast, and may adopt some of Bo Nix's infamous escapeability tactics.
“You look at the good, you look at some of the mistakes, you correct them,” Harsin said of the team's plan with Finley moving forward. “It all goes back to the amount of time preparing and the intensity you practice with, especially at that position.”
Finley finished with under 200 yards passing and just one score on the day, which he will look to improve on against an Alabama defense that gave up 326 passing yards to the Razorbacks last week.
The Tigers will have to finish drives with more than just field goal attempts to beat Alabama. Auburn has struggled to finish its drives that reach the red zone for most of the season, and now with its starting kicker out, Harsin has made it a priority for the end of the season.
“In the end of games, you wanna be clutch in those moments,” Harsin said.
Auburn's two longest drives of the night, which collectively chunked off more than 10 minutes of on-the-field action, ended with the offense attempting field goals. One of which that was missed within the South Carolina 10-yard line.If the team finishes in the end zone on one of those two drives, even if it then subsequently missed on the single field goal attempt, the game would've been tied at the end of the fourth.
“There has certainly been some moments where we've had drives fall apart here and there,” Harsin said. “Those things happen. You've got to overcome them.”
“Really, it comes down to that second half and finishing,” Harsin said. “If we made it happen in the first half, we can make it happen in the second half.”
Auburn will have a tough task breaking its first three-game losing streak since 2012 when the Iron Bowl rolls to town after Thanksgiving. Though, Alabama struggled last week at home against an Arkansas team that Auburn had little trouble with earlier in the season -- and weirder things have happened in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Tigers take on the Crimson Tide at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 27, with kickoff set for 2:30 p.m. CST. Auburn hasn’t lost a home Iron Bowl since 2015.
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