AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn knew the test would be much tougher in Week 3 after breezing through a Group of 5 tune-up against still-winless Arkansas State. The pressure to show real improvement was there, but Gus Malzahn’s team ended up falling into its old ways against Texas A&M.
The Tigers’ 29-16 loss inside Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night looked familiar on both sides of the ball, aside from the confusing quarterback carousel that plagued the Week 1 matchup against Clemson. Auburn couldn’t find any offensive consistency after a string of good drives from its defense, and then it couldn’t get enough points together in the late stages.
That’s been the story for a large part of Auburn’s last six SEC games inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. While there were a couple of brief glimmers of change for the offense against Texas A&M, they didn’t last. Now Auburn has to face another round of tough grading ahead of next Saturday’s potentially do-or-die matchup against LSU.
As we do each Sunday, let’s hand out some position-by-position Sunday grades from Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M. The grading scale here is A+ being a legendary performance, C being average and F being a complete failure.
Sean White looked in command of Auburn’s offense early against Texas A&M, completing his first six passes. Then it took him eight more attempts just to get a completion of 10 or more yards. His third-down attempts started landing well short of the chains, and Auburn’s offense came to a halt in a terrible third quarter.
White was pulled in the fourth quarter for John Franklin III, who had a mostly positive performance off the bench. His presence opened up things for Auburn’s rushing attack against Texas A&M’s defense. Franklin missed on some open passing opportunities and stepped out of bounds early on a fourth-down scramble. But the Aggies had to respect what he could do on the ground, and Malzahn has something to think about during the next couple of days.
Running Backs: C+
Kamryn Pettway got the early carries for Auburn on Saturday night and delivered. He showed the power and the vision that made him the Tigers’ lead rusher against Arkansas State. The only thing that slowed the big sophomore was the Auburn sideline — he had just two carries in the third quarter. His first carry of the fourth quarter, when Franklin checked into the game, went for 33 yards.
Outside of a couple of explosive runs, Kerryon Johnson was held in check most of the night. He tried to find space with side-to-side work but ended up getting nowhere against Texas A&M’s defense. Johnson, like Pettway, found more space with Franklin on the field and scored a late touchdown to give Auburn at least one second-half positive.
Wide Receivers: C-
First, the major positive: This is the Tony Stevens that Auburn has been waiting on for quite some time. The senior had a game-high 8 catches for 86 yards and was targeted 14 times by White and Franklin. Stevens’ experience in Malzahn’s system is starting to pay off in a big way, as he’s become more than just a pure vertical threat who was knocked for his inconsistent hands. During the last two weeks, Stevens has become the guy for the Auburn receiving corps.
There were multiple negatives, though, that bring down this group’s grade. Auburn struggled with several drops after having few in the first two games of the season. Marcus Davis, who is usually as sure-handed as they come for the Tigers, couldn’t hang onto a couple of key passes. Ryan Davis had a fumble in Auburn territory that turned into one of Texas A&M’s five field goals. Will Hastings only had 9 yards on three catches after making big plays last Saturday. Kodi Burns will have a good amount to fix this week.
Offensive Line: D
Throughout the week, I said this would be the defining unit for Auburn’s chances against Texas A&M. The Aggies brought their big-time pass rush to the Plains and targeted a pair of offensive tackles who had issues in Weeks 1 and 2. Those woes continued Saturday night. Myles Garrett had 2 sacks — including one on the first snap of the game — and Texas A&M finished with a massive 13 tackles for loss.
Auburn didn’t get a consistent push up front from its offensive line, and its running game ran of steam because of it. The pass protection woes were apparent from the beginning, as White was under constant pressure. The overall execution from the offensive line was once again below what has been expected of an Auburn front five in the Malzahn era. If Auburn can’t turn things around up front against an SEC opponent, it could be a long couple of months for this entire offense.
Defensive Line: B
Auburn’s defensive line set the tone early with plenty of pressure on Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight. The Tigers had issues early on with containing the slippery former Oklahoma star, but he only busted one run for more than 10 yards after the first quarter. Montravius Adams got Auburn’s lone sack of the night, and young playmakers such as Marlon Davidson and Byron Cowart made some impact plays.
Trevor Knight dropped back to pass 7 times on that first drive.
Auburn has 4 QB hurries and 1 sack.
— TexAgs (@TexAgs) September 17, 2016
Adams’ single sack might be the biggest knock on this entire defensive line — it can get to the quarterback, as shown by its 13 quarterback hurries on Saturday night. But bringing the opposing quarterback down behind the line of scrimmage continues to be a concern for this front. Carl Lawson still hasn’t recorded a sack this season as player such as Paul James III have out-produced him early.
Deshaun Davis and Tre’ Williams picked up the starts at linebacker for Auburn, and they both delivered with a team-high 6 tackles apiece. Williams pitched in with the pass-rushing as Davis continued to be a constant motion-type of linebacker Auburn has been looking for since the days of Tommy Tuberville. Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson continued to perform in their reserve duties, and there wasn’t a noticeable drop-off when they rotated into the game.
This linebacker unit set the tone for a defense that strung together several three-and-outs against a usually potent Texas A&M offense and made few mistakes. They’d like to have Trayveon Williams’ huge touchdown run back and a couple of conversions where they missed opportunities. But overall, the linebackers looked strong once again as Auburn tried to carry the entire game on the strength of its defense.
Defensive Backs: B+
Knight completed just 50 percent of his 40 passes for 247 yards, and he only had a couple of huge plays. The Tigers stood tall against a Texas A&M wide receiving corps that is widely considered to be one of the best in college football. Josh Holsey got beat on a pair of key passes to Josh Reynolds, and Tray Matthews inexplicably fell down on Williams’ long fourth-quarter touchdown, but the secondary played a mostly clean game Saturday night.
Cornerback Carlton Davis stepped in with a key pass breakup, along with a touchdown-saving knockdown by safety Nick Ruffin. Javaris Davis had one of the biggest hits of the year on a play that led to a three-and-out from the Texas A&M offense. For the second time in three weeks, Auburn’s secondary didn’t back down against a highly powered group of wide receivers and did enough to keep its team in the game for most of the way. That’s a long way from where these units were under past defensive coordinators.
Special Teams: C
After a standout game against Arkansas State, Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson had a quiet night against Texas A&M. He nailed his only field goal try, a short one to end the first half. While Texas A&M didn’t allow a single punt return, Kerryon Johnson had a nice 34-yard kick return in this one.
The problems for Auburn came in the punting game. Kevin Phillips and Ian Shannon combined to average just 37.2 yards per boot against the Aggies. While they prevented Christian Kirk from pulling off a big return, they also had several punts of fewer than 30 yards. That won’t cut it for the Tigers, as the miscues gave a determined defense even tougher situations to get out of in the first three quarters.
Auburn has major issues with its offense, but it can’t all fall on the shoulders of Malzahn. Sure, several third-and-long pass attempts had routes that went well short of the chains. There was also the move away from Pettway in the third quarter. But poor execution played just as much of a factor — if not more — in how the Tigers played on the offensive side of the ball. Give Malzahn credit, though, for bringing in Franklin to provide that late spark in the fourth quarter.
It ain't _all_ on the coaches, guys.
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) September 18, 2016
Defensively, coordinator Kevin Steele had another solid game plan that was executed well. He brought the right amount of pressure and kept a feared spread offense out of the end zone time and time again. Auburn made the right adjustments on defense and kept the home team competitive until Williams’ kill shot of a run. The pressure is now even greater on the offensive staff as it tries to get things sorted out before the season gets away from the Tigers.