AUBURN, Ala. — Earlier this week, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made a statement during his Tuesday press conference that may have seemed silly at first.
“It’s an early kick and we are going to have to be awake and ready to go,” Malzahn said, referring to the 11 a.m. local kickoff between Auburn and Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Malzahn’s common-sense words rang true during the first half in Jordan-Hare Stadium. No. 9 Auburn trailed Vanderbilt at the halftime break and looked flat without starting quarterback Sean White and star linebacker Deshaun Davis, who was ejected for targeting.
Then the second half woke everyone up on the Plains.
White returned from an undisclosed injury to spark Auburn’s offense in a 23-16 escape over the upset-minded Commodores. White threw for 106 yards in just two quarters of play and running back Kamryn Pettway came alive with another 150-yard game. Some late drama by way of a Zach Cunningham field goal block was eliminated by a last-minute interception from Josh Holsey.
Auburn (7-2, 5-1 SEC) will still have all of its big goals intact after this shaky conference home finale, especially after Mississippi State’s upset win over No. 4 Texas A&M. However, some major questions need to be answered after a sleepy start on the Plains.
Sean White starts the second half for Auburn on offense.
Auburn announced White as the starting quarterback in the pregame lineup, but the sophomore didn’t go through 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills during warmups. Right before kickoff, the Tigers announced John Franklin III would be the starting quarterback.
While the junior college transfer moved the ball well on the ground, he wasn’t much of a threat to throw the ball. Vanderbilt loaded the box and held the Tigers in check for a 13-10 halftime lead. At the break, Auburn only had 124 yards of offense on 25 plays.
But after halftime, White took the field as Auburn’s quarterback and promptly led the Tigers on a touchdown drive. He completed his first 7 passes for 75 yards before a third-down incompletion that could’ve been whistled for pass interference.
Auburn’s offense looked a little more like its usual self in the second half as the defense tightened up some on the Commodores’ clock-melting attack. White’s return brought the energy back to Jordan-Hare Stadium in what was an important win for its SEC championship hopes.
Would Auburn’s defense rebound or remain the same with the early kickoff?
In the last several seasons, Auburn has had a hard time playing as the home favorite in these 11 a.m. local time kickoffs. With a less-than-capacity crowd around them in a game in which it was favored by several touchdowns, the Tigers didn’t come out with a lot of energy.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who has been shaky at best this season for the Commodores, connected on a lot of quick passes early in the game. The targeting call on Deshaun Davis took away Auburn’s emotional and vocal leader in the middle of the defense.
Auburn struggled at getting Vanderbilt off the field and didn’t get adequate pressure on Shurmur. Vanderbilt’s offense had a good game plan by spreading things out and getting a wide range of players in space.
Those woes continued into the second half for the defense, which allowed three straight long third-down conversions to Shurmur. The Vanderbilt quarterback broke the 150-yard mark for only the second time this season against a pass defense that still showed some holes from the win over Ole Miss.
So what exactly was wrong with Sean White?
Auburn had a list of injury worries heading into this game, but Gus Malzahn said “everyone practiced this week” on Thursday night. That obviously didn’t include White, who didn’t have any reported health concerns heading into the game.
At the halftime break, Malzahn told Auburn’s radio broadcast that White “didn’t practice all week” but that he had a shot to play in the second half. White went through warmups without any noticeable hitches and came out firing in the third quarter.
Gus Malzahn on the radio: "We may give Sean White a shot in the second half. He hasn't practiced all week." https://t.co/fZG8yXXhNS
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) November 5, 2016
White looked healthy in the second half, and his return was crucial in Auburn getting the victory over Vanderbilt. If Franklin continued to play quarterback against a determined Vanderbilt defense, the Tigers’ dreams of crashing the championship picture could’ve been dead.
Malzahn will address White’s situation in his postgame press conference. Keep it locked here at SEC Country for full updates.
8-for-17. Vanderbilt converted 8 of its 17 combined chances on third and fourth down. Auburn entered the game allowing third-down conversions on just 31.71 percent of its opponents’ attempts, which ranked 15th nationally. Vanderbilt went over that mark, and it was big. The Tigers struggled to get off the field on crucial downs in the second half. It almost cost them dearly.