AUBURN, Ala. — The student turnout in Jordan-Hare Stadium was late arriving and less than stellar on the Saturday before Thanksgiving break. That was a good metaphor for the Auburn football team it was watching, too.
A lot of Auburn students apparently decided to go home early for Thanksgiving and conserve their energy for next Saturday. I get that. pic.twitter.com/FgT3qtHKyV
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) November 18, 2017
Auburn eventually shook off the cobwebs during its morning kickoff against Louisiana Monroe and picked up a 42-14 win heading into Iron Bowl week. The Tigers went from one touchdown on their first five drives to five in their next seven, putting away the Warhawks for the second straight season.
Gus Malzahn’s Tigers did enough to secure a moderately lopsided victory in what was a low-energy day on the Plains — much different than it was a week earlier and what it will be a week later. Malzahn will use this win as a teaching moment, though, and a call to be much sharper against No. 1 Alabama next Saturday.
Here is the usual Sunday morning SEC Country report card for Auburn football. As always, A-plus goes to legendary performances, C goes to average ones and F goes to complete failures. Auburn stayed above average for the most part, but it wasn’t too far ahead of it.
Jarrett Stidham completed 75 percent of his passes and tossed a pair of touchdowns, including a 50-yard score that woke up the offense right before halftime. Last season, this would’ve been a big deal against any opponent. But this season, it’s business as usual for Stidham, who also forced a bad throw for an interception and almost had another.
Stidham didn’t have his cleanest game, as he misfired on a few opportunities to further damage ULM’s shaky defense and fumbled away a snap inside the red zone. Still, by completing three-fourths of his passes and having another multi-touchdown game, he can head into his first Iron Bowl with momentum. Freshman backup Malik Willis delivered another successful cameo with his 62-yard run that almost went the distance in the fourth quarter.
Running backs: A-minus
It took a little while for the running backs to get going, just like the rest of Auburn’s offense. But when they did, they excelled. Auburn rushed for 317 yards on 48 carries — an average of 6.6 yards per carry — and a lot of that fell on the shoulders of Kerryon Johnson, Kam Martin, Devan Barrett and Malik Miller.
Johnson fought through a tough first quarter before hitting ULM for bigger runs the rest of the way. Martin was a lightning bolt out of the backfield, adding a pair of touchdowns and 4 touches that went for double-digit yardage. Barrett contributed a 14-yard carry on a toss play and Miller found the end zone. While it wasn’t complete dominance from this unit, Auburn’s running backs got the job done by the final whistle.
Wide receivers and tight ends: B
Auburn’s pecking order at wide receiver is firmly established at this point in the late season. Ryan Davis, who made 6 catches Saturday, is closing in on the single-season reception record at Auburn as the short-yardage and screen-pass specialist. Darius Slayton has been the deep-ball threat, and he caught 4 of his 8 targets for 89 yards and a score. Eli Stove and Will Hastings pitched in with a couple of plays as well.
In short, it was a solid, yet unspectacular, day for Auburn’s receivers against ULM. The tight ends did a good job of protecting Stidham — Jalen Harris had a beautiful pickup block on a Stidham touchdown pass — and getting things going on the ground. If Auburn can get this type of production against Alabama, just like it did against Georgia, it’ll be in a good spot.
Offensive line: B-minus
Early on, Auburn’s offensive line struggled to produce a good push on the ULM defense. Auburn had less than 5 yards per carry in the first quarter, which is below its standard against an overmatched opponent such as the Warhawks. As the game wore on, though, Auburn created better holes up front with an offensive line that has been its best option over the last few weeks.
Auburn didn’t allow a single sack and the Warhawks only surrendered a single tackle for loss that was chalked up to a corner making a good play on a receiver. It was far from Auburn’s best effort, but it got the job done on a day that was ultimately more successful than originally feared at halftime.
Defensive line: B-plus
Outside of the injury scares for both Jeff Holland and Nick Coe, Auburn performed well up front once again. Dontavius Russell had his best game as a Tiger from a statistical standpoint with a team-high 3.5 tackles for loss, which included 1 sack. Marlon Davidson recorded 6 tackles, while the rest of his fellow starters had 5 each.
Auburn hurried ULM’s quarterbacks 10 times, and 9 of them were from defensive linemen. Andrew Williams, Paul James III and T.D. Moultry joined in the fun with good plays of their own off the bench. While there were some misses and just 1 sack from this defensive line, Auburn can’t complain too much about what it received up front Saturday.
Deshaun Davis shook off an injury and still produced a top-level game against ULM with a team-high 9 tackles, which included 2 tackles for loss and a sack. Auburn’s man in the middle has been a consistent force this season, even when the stats don’t exactly match up to his impact. That wasn’t the case Saturday, though.
Montavious Atkinson came in for the injured Tre’ Williams and pitched in 6 tackles, and Darrell Williams and Richard McBryde each made 2 apiece. ULM got loose on a few good runs that came down to the linebackers, who weren’t exactly on their A game Saturday. They’ll find a few things to tighten up from this one before Alabama comes to town.
The positives from Auburn’s secondary were obvious — Nick Ruffin produced a pick-6 and a fumble recovery, while Javaris Davis added a forced fumble and an interception. Those two strong second-half performances from players who have slid into backup roles this season helped Auburn put away the game.
Those impact plays helped balance out an Auburn secondary that held ULM to just 16 completions on 36 attempts but had several big mistakes, from pass interference calls that kept drives alive to missed tackles on big plays to a steady rate of third-down failures through the air. The turnovers and total efficiency were great, but Auburn needs its secondary to return to form next weekend.
Special teams: C-plus
Auburn was worried about its kick coverage against the nation’s No. 3 returner, but ULM only returned 1 kickoff for a total of 9 yards. Daniel Carlson booted the ball through the end zone several times, not giving the Warhawks any chance for impact plays. Carlson didn’t have much else to do, as he was perfect on 6 extra-point attempts and didn’t attempt a single field goal.
The Tigers’ punt game, though, was tough to watch in the first half. Aidan Marshall was averaging less than 30 yards per punt before a 49-yard effort in the second half. Marshall has had his positive moments this season, but it’s clear Auburn needs major improvement in this area for 2018 and beyond.
Credit goes to offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey for bailing on a tame strategy in the first half and sparking the offense with a pass-heavy 2-minute drill before halftime. That aggression carried through into the second half and helped Auburn earn a comfortable win. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele adjusted after ULM’s first drive and kept it out of scoring range for most of the day.
Malzahn harped on the importance of not having a letdown game against ULM. While it wasn’t quite as ugly as the Mercer game, Auburn will leave the nonconference matchup feeling like it could’ve done more. The Tigers didn’t look locked in from the beginning and some of that falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff. But, ultimately, it’s no harm, no foul, as Auburn has a 9-2 record with everything to play for in the Iron Bowl.