AUBURN, Ala. — For a team that put up 510 yards of offense, Auburn football must have woke up Sunday morning with a bittersweet taste in its mouth.
The Tigers moved the ball efficiently through the air Saturday against FCS Mercer in a game that should’ve been a rebound performance from the Week 2 disappointment at Clemson. But five turnovers flipped all that potential into a frustrating two-touchdown win over a 40-plus-point underdog.
Auburn’s 24-10 win over Mercer featured another strong — yet somewhat shaky at times — performance from the Tigers’ top-notch defense. The special teams, though, fell prone to the mistakes of the offense.
Here is SEC Country’s weekly position-by-position report card of Auburn football’s latest performance. As always, an A-plus grade goes to legendary games, a C is average, and an F is a complete failure.
Auburn avoided the bottom end of the scale this week, but it still didn’t have an eye-appealing final tally.
Jarrett Stidham nearly broke an SEC record for completion percentage with a stunning 32-for-37 day through the air. Stidham’s efficiency was overshadowed by the turnovers and a lack of touchdowns, though, and an interception put a damper on a nearly perfect second half.
Stidham looked more poised in the pocket and got the ball out of his hands much quicker after a slower start in that category against Mercer. The comfort level Auburn wanted to see was there. Only two or three of his incompletions were bad throws. A lack of points and that rough interception dock him to a minus grade here, but it was still impressive improvement from the Auburn starter.
Running back: C
That’s right — running back, as in the singular noun. Auburn didn’t use but just one of those, Kamryn Pettway, for the second consecutive week. It was the most bizarre personnel decision of a relatively well-coached offensive game, as this was a game that looked destined for multiple running backs.
Pettway rushed for fewer than 4 yards per carry and had a bad fumble on what could’ve been another touchdown run in the second quarter. His 3 touchdowns were much-needed for an offense that had to get some sort of positive feedback in the red zone. The positives and negatives seemed to cancel each other out in the most run-of-the-mill 34-carry game an Auburn running back will ever see.
Wide receivers: D-plus
Auburn’s wide receivers were responsible for 2 of the Tigers’ 4 fumbles, with another one coming on a special teams from wideout Ryan Davis. The poor ball security killed a potential touchdown drive and handed Mercer its first scoring trip of the game. A pair of drops — including a notable one on third-down from Eli Stove — made things look even worse for Auburn in the first half.
To their credit, the receivers did a better job of getting open for Stidham than they did in the first two weeks. Seven players recorded catches, with all but one of them grabbing multiple ones. But the bad hands at the most inopportune times loomed large in a game that should’ve been a blowout win over an overmatched FCS foe.
Offensive line: C-minus
The good news: Auburn’s offensive line tightened up in pass protection after two weak games to start the season. Mercer had only one sack and one quarterback hurry, and those were probably on Stidham more than anything. Auburn had to plug Casey Dunn in at center after right tackle Darius James’ scary neck injury, and the levels didn’t drop.
However, Auburn’s offensive line still isn’t getting that normal good push up front in the ground game. In years past, the Tigers pounded lesser nonconference opponents into the ground with its run blocking. That didn’t happen against Mercer, for whatever reason. Auburn still needs to figure out what’s wrong in that department as it heads into SEC play.
Defensive line: B
Saturday marked the most quiet game to date for what had been a dominant Auburn defensive line. The Tigers had zero sacks, which had a lot to do with Mercer’s solid game plan of getting the ball out of its quarterbacks hands quickly and moving the pocket often. Auburn had zero sacks, and the defensive line just had three tackles for loss.
Jeff Holland and Paul James III were still in Mercer quarterback Kaelen Riley’s face, with a combined five quarterback hurries. Derrick Brown had a monstrous breakup of a third-down pass in the fourth quarter. Dontavius Russell had a bad roughing-the-passer pentalty on Mercer’s lone touchdown drive. All in all, for a unit that was without one of its top players in Marlon Davidson, the defensive line can’t be too down on its work against Mercer.
Auburn got a balanced day out of its top three linebackers, as Tre’ Williams, Darrell Williams and Deshaun Davis all recorded at least 5 tackles. Mercer only had two explosive runs the entire game, which was a nice improvement after a shaky start in that area.
The Tigers will feel like they fell short at linebacker from their lofty standards, which is most likely true. Mercer had more success moving the ball than Georgia Southern did in Week 1, and potential No. 1 Clemson only put up only 35 more yards last weekend. Still, there shouldn’t be too much to complain about in a 10-point showing.
Defensive backs: B-minus
Mercer had an orchestrated plan of attacking Auburn’s defense with quick passes and shovel options, but it still got a little bit of success downfield. The Bears had three pass plays of 15-plus yards in the second half, and Auburn will want those back. Starting cornerback Carlton Davis was flagged for pass interference on Mercer’s lone scoring drive of the first half.
The Tigers will want to tighten up more in this area, as pass-happy Missouri is the next matchup. Auburn has been mostly strong on the back end for the first three weeks of the season, but a few mistakes have been magnified on a defense that doesn’t make many of those.
Special teams: D
Daniel Carlson is going to need a miracle to win that elusive Groza Award this season. After missing two kicks against Georgia Southern in Week 1, he shockingly hooked a 26-yarder in the fourth quarter. The senior kicker who entered the year as college football’s best has not been his automatic self this season.
Ian Shannon continued to struggle with consistency at punter with a 45-yarder and a 28-yarder in the first half. Gus Malzahn said the team will continue to evaluate that area, which needs help. Ryan Davis fumbled a punt return, and Stephen Roberts didn’t make much of an impact in that area, either. This was a day to forget for the specialists.
For all the turmoil from fans that surrounds Gus Malzahn and his staff, this wasn’t a poorly coached game in terms of strategy. Chip Lindsey’s first game in the box featured more pass calls than run plays, and it worked well for the Tigers in terms of efficiency. Outside of the refusal to put in another running back besides Pettway, the decision-making wasn’t anywhere as questionable as it was in Week 2 against Clemson.
But for a coach that preached execution all week long, five turnovers reflects poorly on Malzahn. He took ownership of the ball security issues after the game, and he should. While his defensive staff continues to call good games, his offense needs to stop hurting itself in order to tap into the full potential it showed at times Saturday afternoon.