Tigers Survive Mercer (Grading Auburn’s 24–10 win over the Mercer Bears)
This is why we fumble
(John Reed-USA TODAY Sports)
War Eagle everybody. It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s 24–10 homecoming win over the Mercer Bears. On one sticky afternoon in Auburn, the Tigers survived a 5-turnover night for a way too close win over the FCS Bears. Never in my wildest dreams did I figure Auburn would be clinging to a 7-point lead in the 4th quarter in this game and would need Mercer miscues and a short scoring drive to seal the win with less than 5 minutes left.
Auburn had chances to have a big offensive day and did finish with 510 total yards while holding the Bears to 246. However, the offense had a hard time getting out of its own way on crucial downs. Possession after possession ended with miscues, whether it was an interception, a penalty, a missed chip-shot field goal, or missed blocks. And of course there were the fumbles. Tiger players lost the ball 5 times, and 4 of those were recovered by the Bears.
Miscues aside, there was a night-and-day difference in execution from last week to this week. Of course, much of that might be attributable to playing an FCS defense rather than the defense of the defending national champion. I’m a little less concerned about Jarrett Stidham this week. Clemson’s defense made returning Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson look bad this week, too. Against the Bears, Stidham hit an incredible 32 of 37 passes for 364 yards. Folks, it would be hard to be that accurate running skeleton drills with no defenders on the field.
The offensive issues this week that I would most note are outside receivers that can’t get separation from defenders and play calling in the run game. After the past couple of weeks, I have to wonder if the Auburn coaches know what a sweep or an off-tackle play is. Auburn seems to game-plan exclusively to run between the tackles, regardless of how many defenders are in the box. Kamryn Pettway shouldered the entire rushing load this past week and scored all three Auburn touchdowns. However, he was also limping noticeably. How in the world does this coaching staff give Pettway 34 carries, while injured, with the talent Auburn has on the bench at running back?
Defensively, Auburn stifled the Mercer attack time and time again but may have been worn down a bit by the 4th quarter, thanks to the Auburn turnovers. Mercer solidly won the time of possession battle. Statistically, Auburn is among the best defenses in the nation after week 3, giving up just an average of 201 yards per game in total yardage. What concerned me during this game were the zeroes. Auburn forced no fumbles, had no interceptions, and had no sacks.
Special teams had some issues as well, in this game. Auburn had another missed field goal attempt, this time from point-blank range. There was a shanked punt and a lost fumble on a punt return. On a positive note, I was glad to see Auburn fielding more punts, this week. Mercer punted 8 times, and Auburn returned 5. Even if the return is only a short one, that eliminates a lot of yards from rolling footballs.
Unit grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: B-. For the most part, these guys filled gaps and took running lanes away but did not get Mercer freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley on the ground in the backfield. The Auburn line contributed 3 tackles for losses and 12 total tackles.
Linebackers: B-. The Auburn linebackers continue to do a good job of filling lanes and hunting the football down. The linebackers managed 2 tackles for a loss and 20 total tackles.
Secondary: B. I counted off, perhaps unfairly, for allowing some long completions on a late scoring drive by Mercer. The Bears hit 20 of 32 passes but only for 4.5 yards per pass. By comparison, Auburn averaged 9.8 in this game. The secondary contributed 24 total tackles.
Punting: D+. Auburn only punted twice and got a pretty good 45 yarder on one of them. The other only traveled 28 yards. That’s an average of 36.5 yards. You’d like to see at least 40 yards per punt in the SEC, probably more. On the year, Ian Shannon is averaging 39.9 yards per punt.
Punt Returns: B-. I liked the 4 returns for 31 yards by Stephen Roberts. I did not like the Ryan Davis fumble. A lost fumble on a punt return is one of the most damaging things that can happen in the field position battle. That’s a letter grade, at least, to lose the ball on a punt return.
Kick Returns: A. Mercer was not going to kick it to the Auburn return men. On 3 kickoffs, one went for a touchback, and a second went out of bounds. The third was a short one, and it was nicely fielded by Spencer Nigh to prevent a possible turnover.
Place Kicking: B. A missed field goal from 26 yards brings this grade down. On the season, Daniel Carlson has hit on 5 of 8 field goals. Carlson was perfect on kickoffs, booting all 5 for touchbacks.
Offensive Line: C. It was a better effort than the week before, particularly in terms of communication and assignments. However, the line did not get as much push as I thought they should have on run plays. A lot of Auburn’s running issues were not with the line, as the line can only block 5 defenders, and Mercer routinely had 7 or 8 guys tracking the running back. It was particularly good to see the line carry on without missing a beat after right tackle Darius James went down. Austin Golson moved out to right tackle and did a pretty good job. Likewise, Casey Dunn filled in decently at center after Golson moved to tackle.
Running Backs: B-. I counted off a letter grade for the lost fumble when Auburn appeared to be headed for a touchdown. Kamryn Pettway had all of Auburn’s running back carries and finished with 34 carries for 128 yards. That’s a pedestrian average of 3.8 yards per carry. Pettway also caught 3 passes for 32 yards. We saw freshman back Devan Barrett this week, too, but he was used exclusively as a receiver with 3 catches for 17 yards. Here is another example of Auburn having too many specialized packages. If we bring Barrett in, the defense knows that a pass is coming his way, and that he’s no threat to get a handoff.
Receivers: C. A couple of lost fumbles kill what could have been a pretty good grade. The outside receivers are having issues getting open. A lot of that is design. If the outside guys run straight go-routes every single down with never a crisp cut, the defender will be able to stay with them. Auburn had an interception on a slant-pass. Nate Craig-Myers had inside position on that pass, but a defender played through him and came up with the ball after it went through Craig-Myers’ hands. Complaints aside, Auburn’s slot receivers gave Mercer fits. Ryan Davis and Will Hastings combined for 12 catches, and freshman Noah Igbinoghene had 3 more.
Quarterback: B+. I might be grading this low after Jarrett Stidham had a near Auburn-record number of completions and but one interception. However, he had a LOT of time to throw on some downs and held the ball forever. Stidham has incredible accuracy when he does let that ball go.
As much as I have complained about some coaching decisions this season, I applaud the decision to work on the passing game this week. It had to be done, and it needs to continue and needs to take the next step next week. Otherwise, Auburn was in danger of becoming one-dimensional heading into the meat of the SEC schedule.
A road trip to Missouri is next. Mizzou is struggling mightily this season, and on paper, this is another good chance to get a win and work on issues. However, taking an SEC team lightly is always a bad idea. Down the road from Mizzou, Auburn’s biggest obstacle before the Iron Bowl appears to be in just two weeks. Mississippi State comes to town on September 30th. The Bulldogs served notice that they are moving up in the world with a 37–7 thrashing of LSU.