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A spirit that is not afraid

Players to watch, keys to victory against California

<p>Brian Battie (#21) runs down the line against the UMass defense at Jordan Hare Stadium on September 2nd 2023</p>

Brian Battie (#21) runs down the line against the UMass defense at Jordan Hare Stadium on September 2nd 2023

A new challenge awaits head coach Hugh Freeze this Saturday night as he takes his Tigers to the West Coast. After a week one victory over UMass, Auburn looks to improve to 2-0 when it faces California (1-0) in Berkeley, California.

The Golden Bears, led by head coach Justin Wilcox, are looking to make a big statement following a dominating 58-21 win over the North Texas Mean Green in Denton, Texas. 

California imposed its will in its victory, putting up 669 yards of offense and eight touchdowns. Both facets of the offense performed well throughout the game, but it was the rushing attack that did the bulk of the damage, accounting for six of the trips to the end zone.

California relied on this due to the injury that forced starting quarterback Sam Jackson V out of the game early in the first half. That did not stop the passing game for the Golden Bears though, as Ben Finley came in and had an impressive performance, posting 279 yards through the air.

On the other side, Auburn pulled out a decisive win at home over UMass 59-14. The Tiger offense had no problem moving the ball, putting up 492 yards in total. Although Auburn attempted to rush the ball more than it did pass, the running game only put up 86 more yards on the stat sheet.

New quarterback Payton Thorne and backup Robby Ashford each picked up significant playing time in the win, with Thorne playing for majority of the scoring drives before handing the reins to Ashford to finish it off in the red zone. Thorne threw for 141 yards and one touchdown in his debut, while Ashford rushed for 51 yards on his way to three trips to the end zone.

The running back core did its job as well, with five different rushers getting a touch throughout the game. They combined for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the absence of Jarquez Hunter.

With this being the first time that the two squads have met, and the first time since the 2013-14 season that the Tigers have traveled to the state of California, there are expected to be challenges. This coaching staff recognizes that, along with the coaching talent the Golden Bears possess.

“[Justin] Wilcox is a great defensive mind. They’re very sound on that side, not flashy, but sound,” Freeze said. “Then offensively, they’re extremely scary. That tailback, he’s one of the best ones I’ve seen, and obviously they had 670 yards I think it was last week.”

Here are some players to watch this Saturday, along with the keys to victory for both squads:

Players to Watch

California Golden Bears:

Jaydn Ott (RB):

The sophomore running back for the Golden Bears made a statement in the week one win, rushing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. The young star earned multiple Freshman All-American honors in 2022, and is an elusive back that gives defenses problems each week. His strength is a force to be reckoned with as well.

Jeremiah Hunter (WR):

The junior wide receiver posted six receptions for 64 yards last Saturday, and had the only receiving touchdown of the day for California. He has the ability to be a downfield threat against any secondary, with his longest catch going for 23 yards. He was the team’s leading receiver in 2022 in terms of yardage. 

Jackson Sirmon (LB):

The senior captain at linebacker poses a particular threat to offensive skill players. The veteran put up eight tackles last Saturday along with a singular sack that came for 10 yards. He is a force in the thick of the defense that can make tackles and shorten gains on a drive-by-drive basis.

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Auburn Tigers:

Damari Alston (RB):

With starting running back Jarquez Hunter not playing last week, the sophomore star stepped up as the leader of the running back core, racking up 44 yards on eight carries and adding a score. He possesses the speed and elusiveness to make defenders miss, which will prove to be key if Jarquez Hunter is unable to play on Saturday.

Jay Fair (WR):

The speedy sophomore wide out led the Tigers in overall receiving last Saturday, posting five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. When found one-on-one, his quickness provides him a leg up on defenders, and can make him a threat in the open field.

Jaylin Simpson (S): 

The senior safety played a key part in Auburn’s week one victory, making three tackles and helping to force two turnovers, including a pick six in the second half. He guards receivers closely which forces opposing quarterbacks to pick an alternative option or make poor decisions that result in turnovers.

Keys to Victory:

California Golden Bears:

In its week one victory, California utilized offensive weapon Ott to perfection throughout the entire game as he helped post two of its eight touchdowns. The star running back will likely have to be a big part of the offensive game plan again, as the Golden Bears do not exactly know who will be starting at quarterback on Saturday night. Wilcox’s offense will need to find ways to work around the aggressive Auburn defensive front.

On the other side of the ball, the Golden Bears will have to find ways to force turnovers like they did against North Texas, where they had three interceptions. If they can force Thorne into some uncomfortable situations, they might just pull out a key nonconference victory.

Auburn Tigers:

The Auburn offense will have to find ways to continuously keep fresh bodies on the field at all times. In a game where the Tigers are traveling across two time zones, the health of the players is going to be as big of a factor as anything. The less fatigue the players have as the game progresses, the more variety that the team will be able to show. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Auburn needs to find ways to make strong tackles up front. The more chances a player such as Ott or Jeremiah Hunter gets to keep moving down field off of missed tackles, the more likely an explosive play is to happen. If the defense can make tackles at the first opportunity, it should allow the secondary to operate smoothly and create pressure on the receivers throughout.

Auburn will kick its key nonconference game off against California in California Memorial Stadium at 9:30 p.m. CST. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Tyler Raley | Sports Writer

Tyler Raley is a junior from Birmingham, Alabama, majoring in journalism.

Twitter: @traley34

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