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A spirit that is not afraid

Unexpected heroes generate new excitement for Auburn in win over Mercer

Editor's note: This story has been updated with post-game quotes.

After coming out on the losing side of the last five games of 2021, Auburn was eager to get the bad taste out of its mouth.

Head Coach Bryan Harsin said that his team’s energy was “different” coming into game week, and they put that energy to good use on Saturday, instilling confidence in the locker room heading into what many consider to be a make-or-break season for Harsin.

With an initial crowd of 84,562 showing up for the fourth consecutive Auburn home opener where fans put on a white out, the Tigers have begun to instill a sweeter taste in their mouths with a week one win in a game delayed by inclement weather. Some fans went home early, but they left with a lot of reasons to be excited for the week two matchup with San Jose State after a 42-16 handling of Mercer. 

"I feel really proud of our team. I feel really proud of our guys knowing last year you don't know them as well as you do now," Harsin said. "I'm proud of our coaches, too. We have a staff that hasn't been through the game like this, but we have guys in new roles and new staff members, so all those things come into play... Proud of them, but at the same time, there's a challenge to get better next week."

The team looked new and improved -- like the offseason was a much-needed breath of fresh air. The week one matchup eased redshirt freshman Robby Ashford into play and saw breakouts from junior receiver Ja'Varrius Johnson and junior linebacker Cam Riley.

Returning players step up in a big way

Johnson, despite being listed behind redshirt freshman Tar'Varrish Dawson Jr. at H-wide receiver, had a field day from the start for the Tigers, racking up four catches for 117 yards and adding a pair of rushes and punt returns to give him 137 all-purpose yards. He started by picking up Auburn's first first down of the year on an end around for a short gain and then set up Jarquez Hunter's first TD of his three-score day with a 40-yard snag from Finley.

“It felt good being out there tonight and playing with my boys," Johnson said. "We’ve been working hard and battling together. Everything we’ve been saying about our team is showing. We finally got to compete against another team, and it was our time to get after it.”

On the defensive side, junior linebacker Cam Riley had a monstrous performance, gathering 15 tackles, including nine solo stops and a hit on Mercer QB Fred Payton.

While he constantly shut down the pair of Mercer backs, who each rushed for 95+ yards last week, Eku Leota recorded Auburn's first tackle for loss of Auburn's season and Derrick Hall got into the backfield for Auburn's first sack of 2022.

Ashford impresses, Finley shaky in Auburn debut

When the third Oregon Duck transferred to the Plains this offseason in redshirt freshman Robby Ashford, the Auburn QB room looked crowded -- crowded with a lot of different talents. But Ashford stood out with a unique skillset, and he showed why against Mercer. 

In his first collegiate action, No. 9 got his chance early, but in limited fashion before leading mostly all of Auburn's second half.

He came in for one play at a time for his first three carries, and each time he took off for a QB keeper. The runs went for eight, 49 and then 10 yards. 

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Finley got off to a strong start, throwing for 100 yards on 8-of-11 passes with a TD in the first half, but when he threw an interception on his second straight drive to start the third quarter, Ashford took command of the offense for the next two drives and began to utilize his arm.

He finished his first full drive 2-for-3 passing, including a 56-yard dime to Johnson to get the Tigers down to the Mercer 7-yard line. This set up Hunter to close the gap to the goal line and bulldoze his way into the end zone for the third time of the day.

After the rain delay, Ashford kept taking snaps behind center. He ended his day 4-for-7 passing for 100 yards through the air as well as six runs for 68 yards. Finley had some bright moments, going 9-for-14 with a TD, but throwing a pair of picks that didn't make it to the intended receiver.

End zone takeover

Hunter did the majority of the Auburn scoring, being the subject of three of its six TDs, but he only accounted for 34 yards on eight carries. Bigsby shouldered the majority of the load, getting 16 carries for 147 yards and two TDs.

However, it might be the one TD through the air that was the most notable for Auburn. 

In the first quarter, Finley took a snap from the Mercer 2-yard line from the shotgun. He quickly lazered a ball to his left to hit a slanting John Samuel Shenker for his first TD reception since 2019. While his usage increased last year and he broke the record for both receptions (33) and yards (413) by an Auburn tight end in a single season, he didn't reach the end zone. 

The fifth-year senior had one TD reception each in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but he ended his two-year end zone hiatus to open the 2022 season to put the team up 14-0.

Finley, a good friend of Shenker's was unaware that it was his tight end's first touchdown catch since 2019, but he was happy to be a part of more history for Shenker.

"It felt amazing. I told him before the game, 'You will score today,' and he didn't believe me," Finley said. "That guy's an amazing talent and amazing leader... This is my second time being a part of history for Shenker. One is breaking his receptions record last year (versus Houston), and the other is today with his first touchdown since 2019. So very happy for him."

Bear down

While Mercer (1-1), out of the Southern division of the FCS, isn’t exactly a powerhouse football program, the Bears showed promise in its first game of the season a week ago, throttling Moorehead State 63-13, led by a 192-yard, three-touchdown performance from Georgia transfer Ty James.

James, however, while having a few big catches for 42 yards, couldn't repeat last week's performance. He was targeted on several early deep balls, but Nehemiah Pritchett was able to break them up.

Mercer was held to 197 yards passing with two TDs, and they couldn't get anything going on the ground, with only 74 yards on 31 carries.

“It’s always a great opportunity to play a team like this," said Mercer head coach Drew Chronic. "I wouldn’t say I'm proud of the way we played. I thought we hurt ourselves a lot. But I like the way we finished each half. We showed some resiliency, but way too many self-inflicted mistakes."

Auburn (1-0) got a good opportunity to see young talent as well as veterans step into bigger roles in the season opener. Auburn had blowout wins in each of the first two games last season, but getting players playing time as well as developing team chemistry says more than just the score.

The Tigers have a lot to work with going into week two versus San Jose State, which will be a return to Jordan-Hare Stadium at 6:30 p.m. CST next Saturday. 

"After your first game, you move forward, and I think these guys are energized, and I think they're excited about the potential of this team," Harsin said. "They're also realistic that we have to keep improving in order to achieve the goals we want to achieve.”

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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