Tigers Fall Flat in Atlanta (Grading Auburn’s 34–27 loss to Central Florida)
The Tigers were ripped apart by McKenzie Milton
(AP Photo/John Bazemore)
War Eagle everybody. It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s disappointing 34–27 loss to Central Florida in the Peach Bowl. Not since 2007, when Auburn dropped a 26–23 decision to South Florida in a late game at Jordan Hare Stadium, has Auburn lost to a team not currently in a Power Five conference. At that time, however, USF was a member of the Big East Conference that was part of the BCS equation. We have to go WAY farther back to get an Auburn loss to a truly second-tier team. In 1991, Auburn dropped a 10–9 decision to Southern Mississippi. I suppose one could try to salve yesterday’s pain by saluting UCF as the only unbeaten team in the bowl subdivision. For this Auburn Tiger, it was a sad day where the Auburn football program dropped the ball in numerous ways.
My first complaint about this game was the footing for this Auburn team. I’ve seen nothing from the print or television media about it, but Auburn players over and over were slipping and falling on the indoor turf. We’ve seen bad indoor turf before in Auburn bowl games, most notably in the 2011 BCS title game in Arizona. If bad turf was the issue, why weren’t the Golden Knights slipping and falling, too? I can only believe that it was the shoes, but you’ll not likely hear any Auburn folks bad mouth any equipment suppliers, thanks to today’s ubiquitous sports-apparel contracts.
I cannot believe the performance by the Auburn defense. In November, it held next week’s participants in the national title game to a combined 31 points. Here in January of 2018 UCF bested that total in just one game. Most baffling was the decision not to try to go after UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. We heard chatter from the coaches prior to the game that Auburn’s objective was to keep Milton from beating Auburn by running around, but Auburn failed to do that as Milton was the leading rusher in the game with 116 yards. I’d like to take this time to remind all coaches that the best way to stop any quarterback is to get him on the ground. Auburn’s failure to pressure the quarterback resulted in an injury-riddled secondary getting picked apart in the second half.
The Auburn offense had success at times, but at other times it was a sputtering, turnover-plagued mess. The offensive line was just plain bad in the first half. Lead blocking took the holiday off, too, as guys slid down trying to make blocks, and UCF defenders flew past them and took receivers and backs down behind the line of scrimmage. Auburn tried all week to promote the idea that running back Kerryon Johnson was 100 percent healthy for this game. Did he look healthy and effective to any of you readers? I fail to see why the deception is necessary from this coaching staff.
Auburn special teams have had serious problems this season but largely outplayed their counterparts in this game and kept Auburn in the game till the waning seconds. There were some punting issues and tackling issues on returns, but the special teams units came through when desperation plays were needed. Without massive pressure and push on the field-goal defense teams, this would have been a double digit loss to UCF.
Unit Grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: B-. Handcuffed by a particularly bad defensive game plan, this unit managed just 1 sack, no quarterback hurries, and half a tackle for a loss. The plan was to contain UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, but that did not happen. Auburn largely contained other UCF runners but still gave up 34 points. Auburn linemen contributed 25 tackles, but 24 of them were beyond the line of scrimmage.
Linebackers: C. I can only guess here that the plan was to ignore UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton and watch him run by. Auburn linebackers were mostly able to limit UCF running backs to short gains, but any sort of attempt to spy Milton failed badly. The linebackers contributed 20 tackles in this game.
Secondary: C-. I was tempted to give an F, but it is unfair to ask an injury-depleted group to cover for 10 seconds or more while the quarterback runs around unmolested. Auburn defensive backs did break up some passes and were there on coverage, although they did allow some contested catches. Overall, the secondary made 27 tackles. When you consider that UCF only completed 16 balls, that’s way too many that the front seven of the defense let through.
Punting: B+. I would have liked a little more distance at times from punter Aiden Marshall, but he did a decent job of playing keep-away from dangerous return man Mike Hughes, who finished the game with just 1 punt-return yard.
Punt Returns: C-. Auburn got a few fair catches, a fumble and run backwards for 10 yards. At least the Tigers did not turn the ball over in this department.
Kick Returns: B-. For the first time all season, Auburn faced a kicker that did not reach the end zone and got 6 kick-return opportunities. Blocking was pretty poor, and Auburn got flagged repeatedly for holding and blocks in the back. Return man Noah Igbinoghene made a lot out of nothing, and got Auburn back in the game with a 72-yard effort to start the second half. He would have scored on that return except for more missed blocks down the field.
Place Kicking: B. Daniel Carlson missed on a 53-yard field goal attempt, but I did not count off for that. What was disappointing was that Carlson only managed 2 touchbacks on 6 kickoffs, and the coverage team subsequently gave up 90 yards on 4 returns. Footing was an issue here, particularly in the first half. The kicker’s plant foot is not supposed to slide and rip up turf indoors!
Offensive Line: D-. I’m not going to belabor this grade much. Auburn was regularly manhandled, whipped and just out-hustled here, for most of the game.
Running Backs: C-. Auburn has made hay this year by making the first tackler miss. Not this game. No Auburn back averaged more than 4 yards per carry in this one. H-back blocking was particularly poor. Again, footing was a big issue, as guys could not plant and cut. I did like seeing Chandler Cox used in the passing game, as he had a couple of receptions.
Receivers: C. I really didn’t see much from this group in terms of blocking. There weren’t any glaring drops this week, but we did not see much after the catch nor any spectacular catches in traffic. Routes did not look sharp, either. Several miscommunications happened, too. I did like some of the route concepts in this one, and Auburn did have Will Hastings running around wide open numerous times. Too bad Stidham didn’t have more time to find these guys. The opportunity was there for a record passing day.
Quarterback: C-. Yes, there was bad offensive line play, but Jarrett Stidham didn’t do much to compensate. When UCF blitzed, Stidham was just looking to run, rather than find a hot route to dump it to. Then, he basically cost Auburn the game with turnovers, none worse than trying to force a late slant pass into backed-off zone coverage. Stidham connected on 28 of 43 passes, but a lot of them went for short yardage.
A season concludes for Auburn with a couple of pretty bad showings after a November to remember. The team now has 8 months to get ready for the 2018 season. This program must, MUST figure out how to play indoors as the Tigers will open in Atlanta to start next season. Somebody, somebody needs to go shoe-shopping!
There is little to do this January but go back to work and try to improve in the weight room and on the track. Auburn players will get to watch a couple of teams they beat by double digits play for a national title. For Auburn to get there, execution and game planning must get a lot better.