STARKVILLE, Miss. — For the first road game of Auburn’s 2016 season, let’s bring in a substitute teacher to handle the report card.
According to the Auburn football program’s Twitter account, true freshman wide receiver Kyle Davis did just that after the Tigers’ 38-14 victory at Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon. Davis undoubtedly is a popular grader among his teammates.
— Auburn Football (@FootballAU) October 8, 2016
However, these weekly Auburn report cards here at SEC Country use a stricter rubric than the one for Professor Davis, so it won’t be straight A+ grades for the Tigers this week.
There was a lot to like from Auburn’s comprehensive win against Mississippi State, especially in a 35-0 first half. While the Tigers slacked off after halftime, they did enough to maintain a three-score win and improve to 4-2.
So let’s hand out our grades for Auburn’s performance Saturday in Starkville. As always, A+ is what would be considered a legendary showing, C is average and F is a complete failure.
It’s tough to find much fault with another ultra-efficient performance from Sean White. The sophomore starter only had four incompletions on 18 attempts, and one was an interception that hit Tony Stevens right in the hands. After that pick, he completed his next seven passes to five different receivers, and all went for first downs or a touchdown.
#Auburn QB Sean White looking WAAAAY more comfortable now. In his past 10 QTRs: 46-59 (78%) for 658 yards & Tigers are 21-36 on 3rd downs.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) October 8, 2016
White still had a couple of his usual misses on deep balls to open receivers, and he held the ball too long on one of Mississippi State’s sacks. John Franklin III got in for a few plays in the fourth quarter and had a touchdown called back, but it would’ve been hard to justify playing him much more with the way White had the offense rolling.
Running Backs: A-
Kamryn Pettway was indeed a “beast,” as several of his teammates called him, during Saturday’s win. After Kerryon Johnson went out with an early ankle injury, Pettway’s carries piled up to a massive count of 39 with 169 yards and 3 touchdowns. Only a pair of fumbles, including one that landed in MSU’s hands, took the shine off an ironman performance for the sophomore.
With Johnson and Malik Miller out, though, Auburn didn’t have many between-the-tackles attempts behind Pettway. Stanton Truitt got 32 yards on 4 carries and Kam Martin added 8 yards, but they came on outside runs. Auburn might need a new plan at running back behind Pettway if Johnson is forced to miss more time with his injury.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends/H-Backs: B+
Stevens’ mishap on the game’s first drive was one to forget, but Auburn’s defense bailed him out by holding MSU to a field goal attempt. He recovered well, making an impressive grab on a White deep ball to set up a Pettway touchdown run. Auburn’s top receiver finished with 3 catches for 64 yards.
Ryan Davis continued his short-range excellence, and Kyle Davis had a pair of 17-yard catches to move the chains early. Chandler Cox got involved in the passing game and had several key blocks with Jalen Harris getting more reps at tight end. There wasn’t a ton of production out of this unit, but it got the job done in what was a run-heavy game for the Tigers.
Offensive Line: A
Xavier Dampeer might get back to 100 percent health and still be without a starting job. Auburn’s offensive line has played extremely well since moving left tackle Austin Golson back to center in Dampeer’s absence and plugging in Darius James on the blind side. Auburn allowed only three negative plays, and they all weren’t on the offensive line.
Gus Malzahn said he was 'real proud' of the offensive line. 'Our offensive line did a great job getting the push… that was a big point.'
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) October 8, 2016
Auburn manhandled Mississippi State at the point of attack again and again in the first half, generating huge holes for Pettway and passing lanes for White. That performance came against a run defense that was supposed to be one of the best in the SEC. This unit struggled early in 2016, but it has come around in a big way the past few weeks.
Defensive Line: A
Auburn dominated trench play on both sides of the ball. On the defensive line, the Tigers got constant pressure and several highlight-reel plays. Defensive tackle Montravius Adams recovered two fumbles and returned one for a touchdown. Carl Lawson had a pair of sacks, and Marlon Davidson made the play of his young career.
The Tigers attacked in waves on the defensive line, and players such as Jeff Holland and Andrew Williams continued their impressive progression with strong games off the bench. Mississippi State averaged only 3.1 yards per carry and struggled to find consistency through the air. That all started with a dominant defensive front.
Auburn’s linebackers adjusted back to playing a spread-offense SEC team without any real problem. Junior middle linebacker Tre’ Williams had a team-high 8 tackles, stuffed a couple of key runs and recorded a pass breakup. Darrell Williams came through for half of a tackle for loss in the second half, as well.
The second half featured several breakdowns, specifically in allowing MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to gain chunk yardage on carries and the tackling department. Those slip-ups will be a main focus of the off week, but that shouldn’t take too much away from how these linebackers played in Starkville.
Defensive Backs: A-
Top Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis was the definition of lockdown. He had 3 pass breakups — including back-to-back in the second quarter — and helped hold star wide receiver Fred Ross to just 2.9 yards per target. Rudy Ford, Javaris Davis and Josh Holsey also had strong days in coverage while making a few impact plays of their own.
Yeah, throw to Carlton Davis, good idea, keep it up, definitely the way to get things moving, mmmhmmm
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) October 8, 2016
At the safety spots, some whiffs in the second half turned into touchdowns. However, Stephen Roberts atoned for his mistakes with an impressive diving interception that took away a scoring opportunity in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Tigers held their opponent to fewer than 200 passing yards for the third straight game, which hadn’t happened since 2013.
Special Teams: B-
Daniel Carlson nailed his lone field goal attempt from short range in the fourth quarter and racked up even more touchbacks to add to his growing count for 2016. Mississippi State’s Ross lost 3 yards on 2 punt returns, and the other two punts from Kevin Phillips were stopped inside the 20-yard line.
The return game had a negative as Marcus Davis muffed a punt return in the second quarter that almost handed Mississippi State an opportunity to get back into the game. Auburn needs to be more careful with those moving forward against tougher opponents. The specialists had a decent outing Saturday, and they’re probably fine with being out of the spotlight after having to win Auburn its previous SEC game.
Rhett Lashlee continues to impress as Auburn’s primary offensive play-caller. He’s less predictable than what Gus Malzahn was getting to be at the beginning of the season, and now the Tigers are finding ways to score on red-zone opportunities after moving the ball quickly between the 20s. That decision to change roles might be what keeps Malzahn employed past 2016.
The lack of focus in the second half put a bit of a damper on what was a strong first half by the Tigers. But the defensive staff had the right game plan in place to slow Fitzgerald, and it meshed perfectly with a stronger day of offense. Now Auburn is on the verge of breaking into the Top 25 heading into a much-needed bye week.