Auburn Drops One in Columbia. (Grading Auburn’s 30-22 Loss at South Carolina)
No Answers in the Defensive Backfield
(Photo: Todd van Emst, Auburn Athletics)
War Eagle everybody. It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s dismal 30–22 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks. Auburn ripped out to a 16–7 lead in the second quarter before the offense became a dysfunctional mess, and the defense proved unable to stop the Gamecocks. South Carolina outscored Auburn 23–6 in the last 31 minutes of the ball game.
Quite honestly, I was very sad to see Auburn’s Gus Malzahn get out-coached by Will Muschamp. Auburn did a pretty fair job of spreading the ball around in the first quarter, only to revert to myopic form as the game went on. Not a single pass was thrown to running back Tank Bigsby, who is probably Auburn’s greatest weapon right now. We keep hearing about targeting the tight ends more, but they only got one target in 47 pass attempts. I can only figure that the coaching staff was still sleep-fogged as Auburn wasted 2 timeouts in the final seconds of the first half and did not stop the clock when it had a chance to get into field goal range. I just don’t know. Perhaps Coach Malzahn figured he’d save those timeouts and take them to Waffle House to sprinkle on his hash browns?
Typically, we have had 1 cornerback in the Gus Malzahn era that could stay with the other team’s best receiver and keep him controlled. Guys like Carlton Davis or Noah Igbinoghene. Auburn simply does not have a cornerback like that this year. Top-end speed seems to be a problem, and even if the defensive back gets there, the first reaction is to grab the receiver instead of looking for the ball. We are back where we were in 2018, when Auburn grabbed receivers so much, and the officials are going to give the receiver the benefit of the doubt if the receiver falls down.
Offensively, the biggest complaint from this game would be the passing game. Auburn started out passing well, but then the drops started happening. I counted at least 10 times that Auburn receivers got their hands on the ball but could not bring it in. At least half of those hit the receiver right in the numbers, including the second interception. After the drops started, it seemed that quarterback Bo Nix lost his confidence and started trying to baby the ball to the receivers. Nix also had his own issues, starting with inaccurate throws. The biggest issue I saw there was Nix not setting his feet. As the game wore on, Nix was no longer looking to spread the ball around, and would not trust his pocket. The protection this week was actually the best Auburn has seen this year, to no avail. Also, Nix seemed not to know what routes his receivers were going to run. On the third interception, it was a 3rd down. Seth Williams ran his defender off, then came back for the ball. Nix whizzed it over Williams’ head where it was picked off. To make matters worse, he then went on a tirade against Williams on the sideline to the point where the coaches had to intervene. As the game wound down, Nix had lost confidence in his arm and receivers both and spent the last drive running to pick up yardage, reluctant even to throw the ball.
My only special teams gripe was that we can’t seem to field a punt anymore. Teams are getting lots of ball-rolling field position out of that. On the other hand, we have not yet turned the ball over on ill-advised fielding. The rest of this unit’s performance has been really good this season.
Unit grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: C. Auburn did a pretty fair job early on. Run fits were good, and the unit got some push up front. Colby Wooden and Big Kat Bryant even got a couple of quarterback hurries. That evaporated in the second half as South Carolina was able to pound the ball and push Auburn back. The defensive line contributed 18 tackles, but a lot of them in the second half were falling backwards. Frankly, the defense was put back on the field too many times in the second half due to offensive woes.
Linebackers: C+. Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe did pretty well against the run, but neither is a coverage linebacker, and they are having to play way too many snaps. McClain led the team with 13 tackles, and Pappoe had 10. McClain had the only sack Auburn recorded on the day, and Pappoe the only interception off a deflected ball. No other linebacker recorded a stat.
Secondary: D. I’ll give a passing grade to this unit because of Jamien Sherwood. He is in the right place and is solid in both run support and coverage. The unit generally tackles well but coverage is an afterthought. South Carolina threw 24 passes, and the secondary had just 1 pass breakup by Smoke Monday. Of Auburn’s 9 penalties, the secondary had 5 of them.
Punting: A. Auburn only punted twice, and Aiden Marshall averaged 45.5 yards. South Carolina managed only 1 return for 3 yards.
Punt Returns: C. South Carolina punted 5 times, and Auburn was only able to manage 1 fair catch. Letting the ball hit and roll cost Auburn at least 50 yards of field position.
Kick Returns: B-. South Carolina kicked off 6 times with 4 touchbacks and 1 out of bounds. Tank Bigsby had one return for 23 yards with suspect blocking. That’s not bad.
Place Kicking: A. There is not much to complain about here. Anders Carlson kicked off 6 times with 4 touchbacks. South Carolina attempted 1 return and got stuffed for only 16 yards. Very good.
Offensive Line: B-. Auburn still has trouble picking up stunts on the D-line but did a lot better with it than last week. On the day 3 sacks were given up and 5 quarterback hurries. Honestly, more than half of those negative plays were because the quarterback did not stay in the pocket. No Auburn running back was tackled for a loss, and the team averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It might be time to stop blaming the line for Auburn’s offensive woes.
Running Backs: A-. Again Auburn’s backs were not charged with any turnovers. They averaged 6.4 yards per carry but were inexplicably only given the ball 20 times. D. J. Williams had 2 receptions for 26 yards, but then Auburn stopped trying to throw to the backs. This group has consistently graded highly all year. It is a real mystery to me why it isn’t being used more.
Receivers: D+. There were way too many drops,and poor blocking by the wideouts on screens. In defense of some of the drops, there were a lot of low throws on the day. Seth Williams, usually a great choice on jump balls, was held to 4 catches on 12 balls. Tight end Luke Deal caught one ball for 4 yards that he had to dive to get. It might have been a big gainer with a decently thrown ball as the defense certainly was not paying attention to Deal. That brings up another gripe. Luke Deal has done a killer job blocking the last couple of games. Seems like every time Auburn breaks a big running play behind Deal’s blocking, they take him out of the game. This is the same sort of thing that made my blood boil back in 2012 with offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler. Player makes a big play? Take him out of the game. The same thing happened with Eli Stove again this week, who returned to action after injuries. Stove was Auburn’s most consistent receiver playmaker but was only on the field sparingly.
Quarterback: D-. Three interceptions doomed Auburn more than anything else. South Carolina converted thm for 20 points, and Auburn lost by 8 points. I feel like Bo Nix needs to work on staying in the pocket, and he and his receivers need to get back in sync. I gave a passing grade in this one ultimately because Nix did generate 341 yards of offense, mostly on short passes. This could have been a whole lot more if more balls were delivered where the receiver didn’t have to dive for the ball.
The schedule does not get any easier for the Tigers. Auburn faces an angry Ole Miss team with a prolific offense in Oxford next weekend. The Ole Miss defense showed a bit of improvement yesterday but not a huge amount. Auburn should be able to work on offensive issues and control the ball against the Rebels. How a leaky secondary is going to handle Ole Miss’ speed is worrisome. I think the Rebels feel like they should have beaten both Alabama and Arkansas but didn’t.