AUBURN, Ala. — Almost every college student dreads the early class times on their schedule. Those who play on the Auburn football team are no different.
Auburn showed up to a morning test against the visiting scholar-athletes from Vanderbilt on Saturday, and things almost turned disastrous. The Tigers didn’t have the energy necessary to get off to a good start, especially with the absence of several key players due to injury and a tough ejection.
But Gus Malzahn’s team finished strong, solving some of its problems with timely answers in the form of starting quarterback Sean White and third-down stops. Even though tensions rose again toward the end, Auburn still escaped with a 23-16 win that did wonders for its SEC championship hopes.
Now, a day later, let’s hand out the usual Sunday report card for the Tigers. Remember, the grading scale here is A+ for a legendary performance, C for an average day and F for a complete failure. Although Auburn dipped below its usual high scores, it finished on the right side of the scale Saturday.
Outside of a fumble, John Franklin III didn’t do a bad job in his first career start. He averaged 8.4 yards per carry and made some good decisions with the ball in his hands. But he never looked comfortable in passing situations, and Vanderbilt loaded the box to try to slow him toward the end of the first half.
When Sean White came into the game after sitting the first half with an undisclosed injury, Auburn’s offense returned to normal operations. He completed his first 7 passes and only had a few misses through the air. Stretch his production across a whole game, and Auburn gets a higher grade here and — more importantly — a bigger win on the scoreboard.
Running Backs: B+
Although he picked up more than one-third of his rushing yards on a long run that ended with an injury, it was another strong day for Kamryn Pettway. The SEC’s top running back in terms of production picked up steady chunks of yards against the Vanderbilt defense and became the first Auburn running back since Bo Jackson to rush for 150 yards in four straight games.
Kerryon Johnson is adjusting to a smaller workload well by making plays in the wildcat formation and catching passes out of the backfield. He had Auburn’s lone rushing touchdown on a tremendous effort, and he looks a lot sharper than he did in his return from injury against Ole Miss. Together, Pettway and Johnson combined for more than 200 yards in another strong day.
Wide Receivers: C+
Auburn’s receivers were almost completely out of the game plan for the first half outside of run-blocking. The unit had a few more drops than usual, but some were due to hard contact from the Vanderbilt secondary. Once again, sophomore Darius Slayton led the team in yardage and had his first career touchdown catch to cap a crucial third-quarter drive.
Five different receivers had a pair of catches — Slayton, Jason Smith, Marcus Davis, Ryan Davis and Eli Stove. Three important wideouts in the rotation — an injured Tony Stevens, Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers — didn’t even record a reception Saturday. White has plenty of established targets down the stretch.
Offensive Line: C
This game wasn’t quite up to the expectations placed on the Auburn offensive line in the last few weeks. Vanderbilt had 4 tackles for loss, and the Tigers were whistled for holding calls several times. For a unit that prides itself on few mistakes and decreased negative plays, this was far from its best performance.
However, Auburn averaged 6 yards per carry and didn’t give up a sack. The protections rarely broke down for the passing game, and there were solid running lanes for the Tigers for most of the afternoon. The mix of good and bad up front lends itself to an average grade from a strong positional group.
Defensive Line: C
For the second straight week, an Auburn opponent decided to take away some of the Tigers’ strength up front with lots of quick passes. Auburn didn’t record a sack until the game’s final drive, when Carl Lawson crushed Kyle Shurmur for a big loss. All in all, Auburn had an OK day in pass rushing, coming up with 7 quarterback hurries and a pair of breakups at the line of scrimmage.
Run stopping was where it was at for Auburn’s line against Vanderbilt. The Commodores only put up 120 rushing yards, and plenty of linemen pitched in with big plays, including Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Maurice Swain. The Tigers wanted to create much more havoc up front, but they’ll be satisfied with the way they corralled the running game.
This unit is graded on a curve of sorts. Junior Tre’ Williams, the most experienced member of Auburn’s linebacking corps, was out with an ankle injury. Sophomore leader Deshaun Davis was ejected for targeting on the game’s ninth defensive snap. That put a lot of pressure on Darrell Williams to become the man with several reserves around him.
For the most part, the likes of Montavious Atkinson and T.J. Neal performed decently with their newfound playing time. Pass coverage, especially on third downs, was a problem. But they stepped up to do their part on run defense. While this unit won’t necessarily leap out on game film, it overcame a pair of major personnel problems to help Auburn grab the victory.
Defensive Backs: D+
The quick passes ate up Auburn’s secondary for the second straight week. Kyle Shurmur came into the game with a lackluster season log of stats, but he left Auburn with 221 yards while completing two-thirds of his passes. The woes were real eyesores on third down, when Shurmur delivered time and again to move the chains for the clock-melting Commodores.
But, once again, two key areas stood out for Auburn’s secondary — big-play prevention and Josh Holsey. Vanderbilt’s longest completion of the game (29 yards) came on a wild deflection on fourth down. Other than that, the big plays just weren’t there for Shurmur. And then there’s Holsey, who sealed an Auburn win for the second straight week with a timely interception inside his own territory. He’s a defensive MVP again.
Special Teams: B-
Daniel Carlson’s only kryptonite seems to be incredible blocked field goals. Vanderbilt star linebacker Zach Cunningham had one of the best plays Auburn fans will see all season to swat down a potential clincher from Carlson late in the game. Before that point, Carlson hit 3 big field goals, including a 53-yarder in the third quarter.
Kevin Phillips had a pair of strong punts, and Johnson broke a nice kickoff return in the second half. Auburn did have a major gaffe, though, with a failed “Starburst” play that Malzahn loved to run during his high school days. The exchange from Kam Martin to Franklin turned into a fumble deep in Auburn territory, ending any hopes of points just before halftime.
Full credit needs to go to Vanderbilt and its head coach, Derek Mason. The Commodores had a strong game plan for keeping Auburn off-balance in the early kickoff slot, and they executed it well. Vanderbilt limited Auburn’s time of possession and tightened up defensively against the run.
Malzahn’s decision to turn White loose in the second half paid off, even though the circumstances surrounding it remain unclear. Defensively, Auburn needed more tightening in the second half, especially in the area of coverage on crucial third downs. But Auburn made enough plays after halftime to walk out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with an important victory. The Tigers will just need more study hall time before heading to Athens.