Auburn Fumbles One Away in Starkville (Grading Auburn’s 23-9 Loss to Mississippi State)
Auburn could not execute when it counted.
War Eagle everybody! It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on an Auburn collapse in Starkville. Shaky offensive line problems continued, and a propensity to drop the ball on the ground doomed the Tigers to a 23–9 loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs. A normally stout front seven on defense was unusually mushy as well, allowing MSU to keep the ball, and grind down the field time and time again. The Bulldogs converted on 7 of 17 times on 3rd down while Auburn was just 3 of 14.
The defensive strategy for this game was to stop the run and make Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald try to beat Auburn with his arm. Unfortunately, the defense was unable to stop the run consistently. Mississippi State gashed the Auburn defense for 349 yards on the ground, with Fitzgerald picking up 195 of those yards, to break Tim Tebow’s SEC career quarterback rushing record. Kylin Hill also picked up 126 yards as Auburn had great difficulty tackling him. In defense of the Auburn defense, they were on the field for over 41 minutes due to offensive ineptitude on the other side of the ball. When a defense holds Mississippi State to 23 points, it ought to be enough, especially considering that 1 of the 2 State touchdowns was set up by a dropped punt.
It was another bad day on offense for this Auburn team. This unit is like a seriously old and leaky boat. As soon as one hole gets patched, another area springs a leak. We have been grousing about the offensive line all season. In this game, I thought that the line showed huge improvement, which was mostly wasted. The line did give up pressure at times off the right side with Calvin Ashley getting his first start. However, protection was good more often than it wasn’t. The line didn’t have any penalties on the day, and missed assignments were rare.
Overthrown downfield passes continue to be the order of the day. Auburn can complete screens and sideline passes at short to medium range. The route schemes consistently get guys open over the top down the middle, but Auburn didn’t hit any of these opportunities at Mississippi State. The biggest reason Auburn did not score but 9 points was ball security. Auburn had dropped passes, dropped snaps, dropped punts, and fumbles in this game. JaTarvious Whitlow entered the game despite an injured shoulder and provided an immediate spark to the offense. However, there were 2 touchdowns taken off the board on a dropped pass with a wall of blockers set up and a fumble going into the end zone. Note to ball carriers: it is rarely worth it, to stick the ball out from your body unless it is 4th down with the game on the line. On Whitlow’s long run, it was very unnecessary. Likely, Whitlow would have scored anyway. At worst, Auburn would have had first and goal at the one. As an individual player, it is tempting to stick that ball out and add more touchdowns to your count. As a teammate, even one fumble in that situation can cost your team the game.
Special teams had a decent day with the exception of fielding punts. MSU punted 5 times, 3 for touchbacks. On the fielding opportunities, Ryan Davis dropped both, the second of which gave the Bulldogs a short field. Mississippi State cashed that opportunity. Instead of a 6–3 game at the half, Auburn trailed 13–3.
Unit grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: C+. I never thought I’d see this line get worn down, but it happened to an extent in this game. Mississippi State threw 17 passes. Auburn was credited with no sacks and no quarterback hurries. I was going to give a much worse grade here, but review of the game showed otherwise. The defensive line contributed an astounding 30 tackles. They were just on the field too much.
Linebackers: C. Like the line, the linebackers were also out there too long. There were a number of uncharacteristic missed tackles that allowed Mississippi State to keep moving the chains. Adding it up, the linebackers did have 29 stops on the evening.
Secondary: A-. The Auburn secondary limited Mississippi State to mostly little screen passes. When the Bulldogs did try to throw downfield, an Auburn defensive back was there to contest the throw. The Bulldogs only attempted 17 passes, and the Auburn secondary had 4 pass breakups and an interception. The secondary also contributed an astounding 42 total tackles. That is too many. When free safety Jeremiah Dinson is having to make 15 tackles by himself, the rest of the defense isn’t holding up too well, overall.
Punting: A. Arryn Siposs has been as good as advertised. On the day, Siposs had 3 punts for a 47-yard average and no returns. Auburn would be well-served to hold onto the ball better, and have Siposs punt it away more.
Punt Returns: F. We might as well have rushed 11 on punts. Having a return man back there was a liability in this game.
Kick Returns: C+. There was only 1 opportunity, and Asa Martin got the ball out to the 26, which was slightly better than a fair catch.
Place Kicking: A-. I can’t count off for misses beyond 50 yards. Anders Carlson did hit 3 shorter field goals, and most of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Carlson did not get a chance to add to Auburn’s streak of made extra points.
Offensive Line: C. A lot of things were cleaned up in this game, and more often than not there was a clean pocket. Auburn didn’t get really any push in the middle in this one. The rare successful runs were on “overloads,” where the team got pulling guards out front on the edge. Calvin Ashley had some issues getting beaten outside on the speed rush, but he will get better with time. Prince Tega Wanagho came back from a knee injury last week, and I think he graded out pretty well on a difficult matchup.
Running Backs: C+. Auburn did not give it to the backs very much. Two balls dropped on the ground really hurt. The first was Kam Martin dropping a wildcat snap and killing a promising drive. The second was Whitlow’s ball extension towards the goal line, which cost Auburn the ball and took a touchdown off the board. Dropped balls on screen passes hurt, as well.
Receivers: C+. There were some drops in this one, but most were contested balls. Ryan Davis is probably Auburn’s most elusive option in the receiving corps right now, and it was good to see the offense get the ball into his hands. That has been missing the past few weeks. From a scheme standpoint, defenses know they have to cover Davis and Darius Slayton. Other guys are running around wide open. Auburn needs to target these guys more. Every pass to an H-back/tight end this season has picked up good yardage. Same thing with Sal Cannella. Auburn must distribute the ball better and force defenses to cover everyone. That will open up the run game, as well.
Quarterback: C. I have to give Jarrett Stidham credit for not turning the ball over in this game. He also did a better job of taking sacks, as weird as that might sound. Sometimes a defender comes free in the backfield, and the best thing to do is go down and protect the football and one’s health. Aside from one fade pass down the boundary to Ryan Davis, Stidham was not on target in this game beyond 10 yards. Screens and quick hitters were accurately thrown. Defenses know that Auburn has no downfield game right now and are exploiting that.
Championship talk for the Auburn Tigers is realistically off the table for this season. It is unlikely that Alabama loses at all the way it is playing, and the Tide certainly won’t lose twice. Auburn is definitely not playing like a championship team, anyway. Right now, Auburn is fighting for a finish in the top half of the SEC West. With games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M ahead, Auburn will have a chance to finish there.
Tennessee visits Auburn next weekend in the dreaded 11:00 AM TV slot. Auburn has a lot more talent than the Vols do, but if Auburn continues to drop the ball on the ground and miss throws down the field, the Tigers will have their hands full in this game. I expect this team to keep working and improve. If there was a silver lining from the MSU game, it was more consistent offensive line play. The line will be tested, against the Vols. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt loves those disguised blitzes, and it will be a challenge to account for unusual looks up front. Until Auburn shows an ability to make defenses pay, expect to see a lot of Tennessee defenders in the box.