AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn preached execution to his Auburn football offense all this week. It was the key, according to the Auburn coach, to bouncing back from a career-low performance against Clemson.
At halftime, Malzahn had two harsh words to describe that execution he demanded.
“It’s inexcusable,” Malzahn told Auburn’s radio broadcast at halftime. “The turnovers are a joke.”
The Tigers more than doubled their 117 yards of offense from the Clemson game in just one half Saturday against FCS opponent Mercer. But the Tigers only had 10 points thanks to three fumbles — two that killed promising drives, and another that directly led to Mercer’s lone three points of the half.
Unfortunately for Malzahn, his offense turned the ball over two more times in the second half. Those giveaways turned what should’ve been a homecoming blowout into an ugly 24-10 win.
For an offense that needed to pass the eye test against an overmatched opponent, Auburn had one of its worst possible starts Saturday — outside of not scoring and trailing to a lower-division foe.
Auburn’s receivers continued their early-season struggles, as they were responsible for three of the four fumbles on the afternoon. (Ryan Davis had the fourth, which came right after halftime on a punt return, and he nearly had the fifth on a long pass completion later in the quarter.)
Kyle Davis and Eli Stove — two sophomore receivers who were primed to be top players in 2017 — were responsible for the other two, with Stove also dropping an easy third-down catch in the first half that led to a punt.
The wide receiver issues didn’t help starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s cause early. Stidham held onto the ball for extended periods of time, often times due to a lack of open options downfield. A few times, though, Stidham had open men that he didn’t get the pass toward in time.
While Auburn’s offensive line only allowed one sack, it’s hard to imagine Stidham’s long stretches in the backfield happening often against most SEC pass rushes.
Despite a 364-yard day on 32 of 37 passing, Stidham had a few of his own issues. He threw an interception just outside the red-zone on a forced slant to Nate Craig-Myers.
Auburn’s offensive line didn’t have its usual run-smashing day against Mercer, either. The Tigers averaged just north of three yards per carry in the first half. Kamryn Pettway had a stunning ironman performance, getting 34 carries for 128 yards, three touchdowns and a costly red-zone fumble.
The line also had to change on the fly when senior right tackle Darius James went down with an apparent neck injury in the second quarter.
The execution issues that plagued Auburn’s offense for the first two weeks of the season didn’t go away as much as Malzahn and his staff wanted against Mercer. Auburn got the yardage it wanted, but it was never able to get out of its own way Saturday afternoon with the self-inflicted errors.
They didn’t let up, either. In the fourth quarter, Auburn went all the way down to the Mercer 3 on another solid drive. But an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed the Tigers back, eventually leading to a hooked 28-yard field goal miss from the usually automatic Daniel Carlson.
Auburn’s defense, which had its own uncharacteristic misses against Mercer, held strong to keep things at a one-possession lead. The offense took advantage of a targeting call on the ensuing kickoff, punching it into the end zone on a 26-yard touchdown drive.
Next week, the Tigers will face a struggling Missouri team that was on the wrong end of a home blowout to Purdue on Saturday afternoon. Once again, Auburn’s strong defense should be able to do enough to give the offense enough breathing room, this time in an SEC opener.
Few, if any, were going to be blown away with whatever Auburn’s offense did against an FCS program in its fifth season back from the dead.
But a lack of noticeable improvement in the area Malzahn harped on all week will keep the questions coming for him heading into conference play.