CLEMSON, S.C. — Auburn football lost a low-scoring game against a top-five Clemson team Saturday night. Its offense let down its defense, went backwards too many times, couldn’t establish a passing rhythm and failed to take full advantage of its few opportunities in the red zone.
All five of those statements would’ve been valid a year ago in Auburn’s 2016 season opener. They came true again early in 2017 — but this time, after the offseason additions of Chip Lindsey and Jarrett Stidham that were meant to change things, the numbers behind them were somehow worse.
No. 13 Auburn put up just two field goals and 117 yards of offense Saturday night in a 14-6 loss to No. 3 Clemson on Saturday night in Death Valley. The yardage was the fewest for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in his entire college career. Auburn’s average of 1.8 yards per play was the program’s worst for a single game in at least a decade.
Auburn averaged 1.8 yards per play against Clemson. It hasn't had a game with fewer than 3.0 yards per play in the last 10 years.
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) September 10, 2017
Unlike 2015, Auburn didn’t have a quarterback controversy heading into the Clemson matchup this year. There wasn’t any momentum-killing rotation of three quarterbacks. But that didn’t keep Stidham from putting up just 79 passing yards, which was less than half of what Auburn’s rotation had against Clemson in 2016.
After completing a 23-yard pass on the third play of the game, Stidham — who averaged more than 10 yards per attempt at Baylor in 2015 — only had one more pass that went for double-digit yards.
Malzahn blamed some of Stidham’s issues on the inexperienced Auburn wide receivers, which couldn’t get open on a consistent basis against the Clemson secondary.
“Jarrett’s a good quarterback,” Malzahn said. “Jarrett just needs experience. A lot of times, there weren’t guys open. That had something to do with him holding the football.”
Stidham didn’t get much help from his offensive line, either, continuing a theme from early last season.
After allowing three sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss against Clemson last season, Auburn’s offensive line — which returned three starters this season — gave up an eye-popping 11 sacks and 14 tackles for loss Saturday night.
The visiting Tigers’ offensive line couldn’t keep new Auburn starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham upright throughout the night. Clemson’s defensive line, led by two All-American candidates in Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, dominated an Auburn front that struggled at times in Week 1 to a Georgia Southern team that lost to FCS team New Hampshire on Saturday.
“We were in the game the whole time,” senior right guard Braden Smith said. “We just didn’t execute.”
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The line also had little push in the running game, as Auburn rushed for fewer than 50 yards for the first time since a 2012 loss to Arkansas. Auburn was without No. 2 running back Kerryon Johnson due to injury, and Kamryn Pettway looked less than 100 percent after reportedly sitting out most of practice this week.
“We’ve got to be able to run the football a little bit better,” Malzahn said. “We can’t be in obvious passing situations. I think there were a lot of third down-and-8-plus situations that were tough. We’ve got to be able to run and play-action.”
Stidham said the entire offense shared the blame Saturday night, and he took ownership of a bulk of it.
“We just didn’t execute,” Stidham said. “There were a lot of things that I could’ve done a lot better tonight. It kind of starts with me, because I’m the one person who has the ball in my hands every play.”
And even though Auburn didn’t get but two clear scoring chances Saturday night, it would’ve been enough to force a tie game, as Clemson just scored two touchdowns.
Instead, Auburn took two early trips inside the 10-yard line and turned them into six points. Last season, Auburn had just one touchdown on four red-zone trips against Clemson. It had less points Saturday night.
“I think we moved the ball well early,” Malzahn said. “The two field goals, not being able to score a touchdown in the red zone, I think it really hurt us right there. Of course, for quarter two, three and four, the negative plays killed us.”
From the red-zone woes early to the complete ineffectiveness between the 20s for the rest of the game, Auburn’s offense went backwards one year later against Clemson — figuratively and literally.
Auburn will get a chance to reverse the momentum in Week 3 against an overmatched FCS team in Mercer. Then Malzahn and his team will hit the road again to open SEC play against a high-powered Missouri offense and its struggling defense.
Malzahn brought Stidham and Lindsey into the fold over the offseason to fix the problems that worsened in Death Valley. And he promised multiple times after a horrific Week 2 loss that his new-look offense will get it fixed.
“After a game like this when you don’t play well, we’ll go back and we’ll look,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to be a good offense before it’s all said and done, I promise you that.”