AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn will take a much-needed breather this weekend, which is the official halfway point of the regular season in the college football schedule.
Right now, the Tigers are 4-2 with a 2-1 record in the SEC after a slow start to 2016 that put a ton of pressure on coach Gus Malzahn. But Auburn has plenty of momentum after shaking off those early troubles to record three straight wins heading into what should be an entertaining second half of the season.
Let’s take a look at the five crucial plays that got Auburn to where it is this season. These aren’t the best plays of the season, but rather the most important ones. They’re the ones that mark the road Auburn took to this 4-2 record at the halfway break, whether by sheer importance or defining characteristics of the season as a whole.
1. Jeremy Johnson’s failed fourth-down try vs. Clemson
Auburn trailed 13-3 late in the third quarter of its season-opening loss to Clemson when the Gus Malzahn quarterback carousel started spinning out of control. Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and Chandler Cox all took snaps on this drive after an interception by Josh Holsey gave a struggling Auburn offense perfect field position. After White missed a potential touchdown pass on third-and-1, Auburn checked in Johnson to run the ball on fourth down. He was stuffed, taking away the Tigers’ best opportunity to score a touchdown in that crucial third quarter. Johnson hasn’t taken a snap on offense since that play.
2. Texas A&M RB Trayveon Williams’ TD run
Auburn’s defense held up well in Week 3 against Texas A&M, which is averaging more than 40 points and 500 yards per game this season. But after Auburn struggled to move the ball at all in what would be Malzahn’s final game as the primary offensive play-caller, the dam broke in the fourth quarter. Trayveon Williams broke an 89-yard touchdown run to put Texas A&M up by 19 points midway with 6:52 remaining, ending Auburn’s hopes of pulling off a comeback win over the Aggies. After this game, Malzahn handed play-calling duties to Rhett Lashlee, the defense tightened up on allowing big plays, and the Tigers went on a 3-game winning streak.
3. The final sequence vs. LSU
Who knows what kind of state Auburn is in as a football program right now if this didn’t happen? LSU marched down the field on the final drive of the game and somehow threw a walk-off touchdown pass after some time management problems. But reviews showed Danny Etling did not get the final snap off before the clock hit all zeroes following an LSU penalty, so the points were taken off the board. Auburn escaped with a crucial SEC West victory over the Bayou Bengals. While LSU head coach Les Miles was fired the next day, Malzahn was well on his way to cooling off his hot seat on the Plains.
4. Sean White’s opening TD scramble vs. ULM
In Auburn’s two blowout wins over Sun Belt foes this season, there have been much more memorable plays — like Kerryon Johnson’s circus touchdown run or Kyle Davis’ miraculous one-handed grab vs. Arkansas State. But this one vs. ULM was important for Auburn’s confidence, especially on the offensive side of the ball. White’s short touchdown scramble on third-and-goal gave Auburn a much-needed red-zone touchdown just one week after settling for nothing but field goals against LSU. In their two most recent games, the Tigers have scored 8 touchdowns on 10 red-zone trips. This hard-nosed plunge by White on the first drive of the game definitely took a weight off the offense’s shoulders.
5. Montravius Adams’ scoop-and-score vs. Mississippi State
This scoop-and-score by Montravius Adams against Mississippi State did two things — it was the perfect encapsulation of the streak Adams and defensive end Carl Lawson have been on in recent games, and it also put an exclamation point on an impressive 35-0 first half by Auburn in Starkville. Lawson’s fifth sack in six games jarred the ball loose from Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, and Adams was right there to take it in for a touchdown. Auburn’s defensive line has been dominant in the last few weeks, and now it’s scoring touchdowns of its own instead of just taking them away from opponents.