AUBURN, Ala. — The timing of Auburn’s homecoming game against Louisiana-Monroe couldn’t have been better.
Auburn escaped last Saturday night with a potentially season-turning upset against LSU — one that highlighted the Tigers’ major strengths (defense, anything that Daniel Carlson does) and biggest weakness (red-zone offense).
Now, before Auburn (2-2, 1-1 SEC) heads to Mississippi State for its first road game of the year, it gets to fix its issues and keep the momentum going against an overmatched Louisiana-Monroe team (1-2, 0-1 Sun Belt). The Warhawks are in a “Year 0” of sorts with new head coach Matt Viator after going 2-11 last season.
While Auburn has the clear upper hand heading into Saturday’s matchup, let’s break it all down, position-by-position.
Auburn: Sean White and his lucky sock penny are coming off one of the best games of the quarterback’s career. He had a strong quarterback rating against one of the nation’s most-feared defenses, and he’s completing almost two-thirds of his pass attempts for the entire season. Backup John Franklin III might get to see more playing time in this one as Auburn looks for the magic formula for red-zone touchdowns between the two of them.
Louisiana-Monroe: Sophomore quarterback Garrett Smith is going to air it out plenty for the Warhawks. When ULM visited Oklahoma in Week 2, he went 22-for-35 passing for 251 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. His numbers dipped against Georgia Southern, but he’s shown he won’t get rattled in a big road environment. Smith also leads ULM in rushing this season, so Auburn needs to focus on improvement at containing running quarterbacks this week.
Auburn: In the words of Gus Malzahn, Kerryon Johnson “was a full-grown man” against LSU, showing a ton of power against a hard-hitting opponent. Johnson took over the carries for Auburn in the second half after Kamryn Pettway went down with a bruised quad. The Tigers will continue to go with their dynamic duo this weekend, but Pettway might get limited carries due to his injury. Keep an eye on freshmen Kam Martin and Malik Miller, who could get some playing time if this one gets out of hand.
Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks had a solid day on the ground in their season-opening win against FCS program Southern. Since then, they’ve had a hard time getting anything in the rushing department, putting up just 78 yards against Oklahoma and 67 yards against Georgia Southern. Sophomore Ben Luckett is the leader at the position, but don’t expect a lot of production out of these backs, especially against Auburn’s stronger run-stopping squad.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Auburn: This is Tony Stevens’ unit now. The senior wide receiver is in the midst of the big breakout many Auburn fans have anticipated, as he has team highs in catches (17), yards (235) and touchdowns (2). Fellow senior Marcus Davis is looking to develop more consistency after a slow start as Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis start to find their groove. True freshman Kyle Davis continues to be the major big-play threat, and Auburn fans could see more of Nate Craig-Myers and Eli Stove on Saturday.
Louisiana-Monroe: Senior Ajalen Holley came into the season as the player to watch for ULM’s receiving corps, but he’s been passed in the early season by three sophomores. RJ Turner leads the team in catches (12) and yards (235), and the 5-foot-8 Marcus Green has found the end zone twice in the early campaign. ULM has completed passes to 10 different receivers and 2 tight ends this season, and it will look to attack Auburn’s secondary in waves.
Auburn: Auburn had a so-so night on the offensive line against LSU. The Tigers didn’t allow any negative plays on the ground, but there were still major struggles in generating explosive plays. That rushing game success should click again for the front five, which did a better job for the most part in protecting White against the Bayou Bengals. Keep an eye on Xavier Dampeer. The senior center refused to come out of the LSU game with an injury and could be limited on Saturday.
Louisiana-Monroe: While Louisiana-Monroe’s offensive line has struggled with paving the way for good games on the ground against FBS competition, it has done a solid job of keeping Smith protected. The Warhawks have allowed just 5 sacks in three games this season and haven’t allowed too many negative plays as a whole. ULM returned four starters along its offensive line this season, and it’s shown improvement in that area, despite what the record may suggest.
Auburn: The strength of Auburn’s defense is up front. Eight of the Tigers’ 9 sacks and almost half of their 23 tackles for loss have come from defensive linemen this season. Defensive end Carl Lawson is coming off his most productive game since 2013, and defensive tackle Montravius Adams has been consistently strong at the point of attack. Auburn will be looking to have a strong day of stats up front and build more momentum as it heads towards the SEC road trip against Mississippi State.
Louisiana-Monroe: Louisiana-Monroe only returned three defensive starters in 2016, and none of them are established playmakers. The transition on this defense hit the Warhawks the hardest up front, where they replaced all four of their starters from a season ago. Defensive end Caleb Tucker leads the team in sacks, but not much production can be found here. The Warhawks’ major struggles against the run — they rank 118th nationally in yards allowed per carry — have a lot to do with the inexperience in the trenches.
Auburn: Deshaun Davis took over for the Tigers against LSU when experienced starter Tre’ Williams was ejected for targeting. Davis has been the most steady option at linebacker in his first four career starts, and his great play has extended to fellow new starter Darrell Williams as well. Tre’ Williams will be back for Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe, and Auburn fans might see a deeper rotation there in the second half. T.J. Neal and Montavious Atkinson will see more snaps.
Louisiana-Monroe: The improvements Louisiana-Monroe have made on defense are evident at linebacker, where a new starting corps has kept opponents from scoring at will on the Warhawks — something that happened a decent amount of times in 2015. Sophomore David Griffith leads the team with 6 tackles for loss, and freshman Chase Day is behind him at 3.5. While they’ve been stronger in pass defense this season, the linebackers have to do more in run-stopping if they’re going to keep this one from getting out of hand quickly.
Auburn: Auburn’s secondary did well against LSU’s struggling passing attack last week, limiting Danny Etling from making major impact plays, outside of the last-second touchdown that was ruled out due to a late snap. Carlton Davis was a lockdown cornerback against the likes of Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre, and Tray Matthews rebounded from some early-season struggles to play a clean game. Auburn’s secondary will be spread out and attacked from all different types of passing angles against ULM, but it has plenty of experience at handling that this season.
Louisiana-Monroe: The little experience ULM had coming back on defense is concentrated in the secondary, where the Warhawks have jumped from the 100s in pass defense rankings last season up to the 50s. Safeties Tre’ Hunter and Justin Backus are senior starters who do a lot for this defense, breaking up passes and racking up a solid amount of tackles. Unlike Arkansas State in Week 2, the Warhawks are far from complete pushovers in the secondary.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson is the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week, and he gave Auburn all 18 of its points in the win against LSU. He’s automatic from close-range and hasn’t missed a kick from distance, either. His kickoffs should prevent ULM from getting any chances in the return game, which is just what punter Kevin Phillips will do with his own work. Auburn’s own return men haven’t had much of a chance this season, but Johnson and Rudy Ford are the types of players who could do some serious damage against a Sun Belt team that was weak in special teams last season.
Louisiana-Monroe: Kicker Craig Ford is 2 for 3 this season on field goals and has hit all of his extra-point attempts, but he was shaky at best as a first-time starter in 2015. New punter Dayton Balvanz is averaging an impressive 43.15 yards per boot this season for the Warhawks. ULM has a solid return unit in place this season after getting a measly 17 yards on punt returns in 2015.
The Bottom Line
The Arkansas State matchup looked like a closer one on paper for Auburn, and it became a nearly historic blowout. (The Red Wolves’ current winless record shows they were much, much worse than originally expected.) Louisiana-Monroe was a bad Sun Belt team last season that is trying to figure things out with a new head coach. The offense isn’t getting much on the ground, and the defense is brand new across the front seven.
Auburn is focusing on itself in this matchup, and that’s exactly what it needs to do. Upsets happen and execution can fall flat, but the Tigers should be able to handle the Warhawks with no issues. This game comes at just the right time for momentum purposes, and it should be a happy homecoming for everyone on the Plains this Saturday afternoon.