ATLANTA — It’s become the theme of this Auburn football season under Gus Malzahn — all or nothing. On Saturday, the “nothing” side came back after a winner-take-all November, and this time, it spread to the whole team.
Auburn can find plenty of issues from its 28-7 SEC Championship Game loss to Georgia. The Tigers were outexecuted on both sides of the ball. Malzahn and his staff lost the strategic battle to coach Kirby Smart and his side. Injuries that carried into this game from previous weeks made it all worse.
After two of the most impressive wins in the College Football Playoff era, Auburn missed a golden opportunity with a total team loss Saturday. The season will still ultimately be a success for these banged-up Tigers, but they still have some work to do in non-home games. Fortunately, a good chunk of this team should be back in 2018, ready to prove it’s learned from its miscues.
Here’s the SEC Country report card for Auburn’s performance. As always, A-plus is for a legendary showing, C is for an average one and F is for a complete failure.
Jarrett Stidham looked great to start the game, as he completed 12 of his first 16 passes for 115 yards. On his next set of 16 attempts, he completed just 4 of them for 30 yards. It was that kind of night for Stidham, who mixed impressive scrambles and great early throws with misfires on passes both long and short.
Stidham was under pressure for most of the game and got caught with “happy feet” a little too often. He wasn’t able to connect with Darius Slayton on deep balls throughout the game and had a couple of huge missed chances, including not seeing an open Nate Craig-Myers in the red zone and some underthrown screens. It was a mixed bag from a quarterback who didn’t look like the red-hot one that led Auburn to big wins against Georgia and Alabama.
Running backs: C-minus
Kerryon Johnson gave it a real go in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While he ripped off a few solid runs, he couldn’t find that second level behind an offensive line that didn’t create as many holes as usual. Johnson’s fumble to start the fourth quarter was a backbreaker for Auburn, which was only trailing by 6 points at the time. Johnson is as tough as they come, but the Tigers should’ve spread the ball around more.
Kam Martin’s 4 carries went for 7, 5, 4 and 4 yards. However, he didn’t get a single touch in the first or third quarters. Malik Miller had a pair of carries in the second half and a last-minute drop in the passing game. Without a fully healthy Johnson and a line that took a step backward, Auburn’s running backs couldn’t produce near their normal benchmark.
Wide receivers and tight ends: D-plus
Outside of Ryan Davis, Auburn had a tough time getting open on a regular basis against Georgia. Davis had 7 catches to extend his record season, but only Slayton had multiple grabs — and both came on screens. Craig-Myers caught Auburn’s lone touchdown on the first drive and was only targeted one more time. Eli Stove had a 26-yard screen reception and a few decent early runs.
At H-back/tight end, Chandler Cox made 1 great catch but had several notable missteps in blocking, including one for a third-down sack. On the subject of blocking, Auburn’s screen passes didn’t click like they did in the first Georgia matchup, and the receivers blamed it on their own execution. Nothing seemed to work consistently for this unit, which will look to regain its momentum for the future with a good showing in the bowl game.
Offensive line: D
Auburn dominated the point of attack in its first matchup against Georgia. That dynamic was flipped in the rematch, as Georgia brought down Stidham for 3 sacks and added 4 more tackles for loss. Auburn created plenty of holes at the beginning, and it finished with nearly 5 yards a carry, once sacks were taken out of the equation.
But Stidham was under pressure way too often Saturday, and he was never able to get into a good rhythm. (He also fumbled on a crushing blindside sack inside the red zone.) That hampered the passing game, which needed to take over with Johnson at less than 100 percent. Auburn’s offensive linemen placed plenty of the blame on themselves, as their losses up front completely changed what had been an on-fire offense.
Defensive line: D
Auburn’s defense rises and falls on its play up front, and this was one of its most quiet games under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. The defensive line was only responsible for 1 sack — an early one from Dontavius Russell — and an additional tackle for loss from Derrick Brown. That’s it. Brown was the only lineman out of six Auburn players to have at least 4 tackles, too. A line that dominated Georgia in the first game wasn’t much of a factor after the first quarter.
Granted, Georgia did a better job of avoiding the heart of Auburn’s defense by running more side-to-side plays. But Auburn didn’t have that same ferocity up front that it had down the stretch of the regular season. Sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson said the defensive line didn’t match Georgia’s intensity, and he was completely correct. This was a huge difference in the rematch.
Once again, Auburn’s defense just didn’t look the same when senior linebacker Tre’ Williams left the field with a shoulder injury. Deshaun Davis led the way again with 10 tackles, and Darrell Williams pitched in 7 more. But this unit as a whole suffered from bad fits and missed tackles several times in crucial spots.
Auburn hadn’t allowed more than 6 yards per play all season, but Georgia got it by keeping the Tigers’ defense off-balance and taking advantage of mistakes. This unit would’ve been better if Williams stayed healthy for the whole game, and it’s worth noting that Auburn only allowed 13 points in the first three quarters. Still, there were too many miscues for the second level.
Defensive backs: D-plus
Jake Fromm’s stats aren’t exactly eye-popping at first glance — 16 for 22 for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns — but he had a much easier time against the Auburn DBs Saturday. Without a consistent pass rush, Fromm had time to take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups. Carlton Davis was on the wrong end of a couple of those before leaving the game with an injury. A couple of busts led to huge 30-plus-yard completions in the middle of the game.
Tray Matthews had a couple of highlight plays and Jamel Dean was able to swat away a tough slant pass at one point. Auburn’s secondary also kept things in front of it on third downs, allowing 6 completions but just two first downs on 7 pass attempts. But like the rest of this defense, the negatives outweighed the positives, and the key injury made things worse.
Special teams: C-minus
Auburn’s weakest links on special teams — punting and kick coverage — didn’t cost the Tigers on Saturday. Georgia only had 1 return for 3 yards, and Aidan Marshall averaged more than 40 yards per punt. Those performances, in truth, were better than expected, and Auburn’s own return team didn’t make any huge mistakes.
However, the kick block team let down Auburn again. After allowing 2 blocks against Texas A&M, Georgia easily swatted Daniel Carlson’s potential game-tying attempt down in the second half. Subpar special teams play was a theme for the Tigers in 2017, and Malzahn has to get it fixed.
It’s been mostly win big or lose ugly this season for Malzahn and his team. Either the Tigers get it right and win big or they make mistakes and struggle mightily — especially offensively. On Saturday, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey didn’t give enough carries to Martin, Miller and Devan Barrett, who might have been able to do a little more, even behind that line. That put a lot of pressure on Stidham, and Georgia feasted on that.
Malzahn outcoached Kirby Smart and Nick Saban last month. Smart got his revenge Saturday night and left with an SEC championship. Auburn didn’t seem to have an answer for Georgia’s defense when it adjusted and made life tougher for the Johnson-led running game. Malzahn showed earlier this season his offensive staff can adjust. It just hasn’t done that away from Jordan-Hare Stadium.