A combination of missed assignments, procedural penalties and struggles on the line of scrimmage caused Auburn to fall to Texas A&M 27-10 at Kyle Field in the conference opener. Hugh Freeze’s offense went without a touchdown on Saturday, and despite flashes of success, ultimately couldn’t take advantage of any decent field position or mistake from the Aggies.
“You know, I certainly don't want to sit here and make a lot of assumptions without watching the film. We had people open and we either missed them or the pressure distracted us it seemed and I've got to watch the film and see, you know exactly what was going on to cause that but we certainly missed a few opportunities,” said head coach Hugh Freeze.
The Tigers might just leave Bryan-College Station with more questions than answers when it comes to the quarterback position. Payton Thorne started the game for the Tigers and never got it going in the passing game, throwing for just 44 yards and completing only half of his passes. Thorne was sacked five times for a loss of 21 yards and was constantly under duress by an A&M defensive line that returned most of its talent from a season ago.
“You got to stay balanced. And you know, we just weren't. We weren't efficient at all in throwing the ball to open receivers when we had them for whatever reason, and it could have been pressure," Freeze said. "We'll have to look at all of it to see, but we certainly were struggling with that aspect of the game that resulted in a lot of negative plays.”
Freeze said on Monday that it would be a long Saturday if the Tigers kept finding themselves in third-and-long situations, and he was right on point with Auburn three-of-15 on attempts to move the chains as its average third down distance to go was 11.7 yards.
With the lack of success, Freeze went to backup quarterback Robby Ashford to try to create a spark, and while the offense moved the ball down the field, penalties and missed assignments continued to leave the Tigers empty handed.
“I mean, those two holding calls when we were in field goal range both times really, really hurt," Freeze said. “I’ll be anxious to see them on film, and they were on two really good runs that we had that put us even closer. Penalties certainly did not help us. They came at difficult times.”
In Auburn’s two contests against Power Five opponents, Auburn has had 17 penalties for 118 yards. Clean play has certainly been a struggle for the Tigers on offense early in this year one season under Freeze, and the continual drive-ending mistakes led to opportunities for the Aggies to take the game.
“They fought and fought. Obviously they gave up a few explosive plays in the third quarter, but we didn't help them,” Freeze said. “I think that took the gas out of our defense.”
Ron Robert’s defense made key plays to keep the team in it early. The Aggies were in the red zone on each of their first two drives and have one of the most successful scoring rates in the red zone, ranking 19th nationally and second in the SEC, converting on 94.7% of their chances. But, the Auburn defense that leads the nation in red zone defense, .429, held A&M to field goals and limited the rough start.
To close out the first half, Auburn forced Texas A&M to three straight three-and-outs and continued to give the other side of the ball chances to take the lead. Ultimately, Bobby Petrino’s offense broke through and a 14-point third quarter stretched the Aggies' lead.
Linebacker Eugene Asante stopped the bleeding and provided Auburn another chance to comeback with his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter with a 67-yard fumble recovery. Asante not only had to dodge Aggie defenders in his pursuit of the end zone, but also Texas A&M head coach, Jimbo Fisher, who was on the field of play during the action.
“I noticed him on the field. It kind of threw me off a little bit. I know it’s probably a big thing and he’s on the field and stuff, but it wasn’t much interference with the play,” Asante said. “It was a shocking thing. It was bizarre, to be honest. I’ve never, well I’ve seen it one time with the NFL, Mike Tomlin. It was a bizarre thing to experience going through.”
On top of the loss, Auburn suffered several injuries to key contributors that could greatly affect the rest of the 2023 season. Notably, Damari Alston suffered a shoulder injury and will undergo x-rays, per Freeze, on a near fumble that if it weren’t reversed from a video review, would’ve been a back-breaking scoop and score for the Aggies in the first quarter of action.
“It's a struggle. That's kind of part of the game, just being in situations where players are getting banged up, and you have to rely on people that might have gotten less snaps and just being in uncomfortable situations,” Asante said. “As players, it's on us to adapt. It's on us to fine tune our work and detail our work, so when we're put in those situations, we're good. It's a hard thing seeing guys go down left and right in those conditions, but we have to be more prepared.”
The Tigers will travel home from Bryan-College Station this afternoon and will begin preparation for the 128th edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry inside Jordan-Hare Stadium next Saturday against the two-time defending champion, Georgia Bulldogs.
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