Tigers Take Care of the Warhawks (Grading Auburn’s 42–14 win over Louisiana Monroe)
Kam Martin is running wild!
(Albert Cesare USA TODAY Sports)
War Eagle everybody! It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s leisurely 42–14 win over visiting Louisiana Monroe. I suppose some of us had unreasonable expectations for this one and were expecting a huge blowout. Over the past 25 years, the Warhawks have often entered Jordan-Hare Stadium and sleep-walked through a payday game. Not this week. Monroe head coach Matt Viator’s team came in ready to punch Auburn in the mouth and play toe to toe with the Tigers. I have to hand it to this coaching staff. This team is no longer a Sun Belt cellar dweller.
I don’t think there’s any question that Auburn’s players did not play as hard as they did against top-ranked Georgia a week ago. However, a large share of the blame has to go to the offensive coaches, as well. The offensive plan that doomed Auburn at LSU was back in large stretches. ULM really sold out to stuff the inside running game, but Auburn kept stubbornly going back to it on first down. The Tigers regularly faced 2nd and 3rd and long. Auburn also threw a lot of safe screen passes but had some serious missed-block issues that we had not seen before. Normally turnover free, Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had 2 this week, one on an ill-advised deep throw across his body into coverage and then a fumbled snap on the goal line. Otherwise, Stidham had a pretty crisp game. The best thing to come out of this game is that Auburn has steadily improved at catching the football.
Defensively, Auburn had some issues getting off the field on 3rd down. ULM had an extra week to work on this game and had the Auburn defense scouted well . It showed on the Warhawks first drive that resulted in a touchdown. Of course, Auburn did help them out with a grab in the end zone on an uncatchable pass. The Auburn defense held firm, though, after the opening score. ULM picked up first downs here and there, but were not able to do it consistently enough to score till late in the game against the Auburn backups. The Auburn defense also came up with 3 turnovers, which is something that has been a little lacking this season. Auburn converted a couple of them directly into touchdowns, highlighted by an amazing pick-six run by safety Nick Ruffin.
Auburn special teams continue to have issues. I had hoped that Auburn would deliberately work on covering kickoffs this week, but that’s kind of tough to risk in a much tighter than expected ball game. Auburn made a big effort just to kick it away from dangerous return men. Where problems popped up this week were in the punting game. In the first half, Auburn had punts that only covered 26, 28, and 31 yards. Meanwhile, in a tight 7–7 ballgame, Louisiana Monroe kept killing balls very deep in Auburn territory and putting the Auburn offense behind the 8 ball. Auburn basically won the ball game after driving 96, then 95, yards for touchdowns at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second.
Unit grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: A. I thought this unit had a good, disciplined game. Facing a mobile quarterback and a good plan for moving that quarterback to safety and limiting his exposure to Auburn’s pass rush, Auburn kept it contained. Although only a couple of sacks were made, Auburn linemen minimized big scramble yards and forced a lot of throwaways. Louisiana never could get the running game going consistently and finished the day averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. Auburn’s line made 30 tackles in this one.
Linebackers: A-. There were occasional gap control issues. The Warhawks made hay on a few occasions early by running quick pitch plays to the wide side that had 3 receivers out there to block. Auburn would catch onto this quickly, then get burned off the opposite side guard-tackle gap on the quarterback counter. To the defense’s credit, this got fixed completely by the time the second half started. I hated seeing starting middle linebacker Tré Williams sustaining a shoulder injury that looked very painful. I hope he recovers and is able to play in the Iron Bowl. Given Auburn’s injury reporting, we won’t really know till the players actually take the field in the game. Auburn’s linebackers contributed 23 tackles.
Secondary: B. Auburn did not cover as tightly this week as in previous weeks, particularly on 3rd down. Auburn also got flagged 3 times in the secondary for pass interference, and 2 of the penalties gave ULM a first down when it had missed the throw. On the plus side, the secondary ripped the ball out of ULM hands, causing fumbles and pass breakups with regularity. The secondary came up with a pair of interceptions, including a wild return for a touchdown by Nick Ruffin.
Punting: C-. As mentioned above, Auburn had 3 short punts in the first half. I’m not sure if this was just bad punts, strategy by the coaching staff to keep the ball out of dangerous return man Marcus Green’s hands, or both. Punter Aiden Marshall did wind up on a punt in the 2nd half and launched it 49 yards. Green got to return that one but was nicely contained to only 6 yards.
Punt Returns: C. ULM punted 7 times, Auburn was only able to fair catch 2 of them, and did not have a return opportunity. Some of this was due to balls being punted inside the 10-yard line, where return men are taught to get away from the ball. Auburn had one near disaster when Ryan Davis and Stephen Roberts collided as the ball arrived The ball was muffed but rolled out of bounds for a 4-yard loss. Several times this season, we’ve had blockers shoved into Roberts, and there have been some near misses on those.
Kick Returns: C. ULM did not kick to the end zone on these, and Auburn had 3 return opportunities for Noah Igbinoghene. Auburn’s blocking hasn’t been very good all season, and this day was no exception, even against a middle-of-the pack Sun Belt team. It is not good when the first coverage man down the field gets a free run at clobbering the return man. On the day, Igbinoghene had 3 returns for just an 18.0 yard average. On the season, he is averaging 23.1 yards per return, which is very good considering the blocking. Just a little help here, and we could be seeing touchdowns on kick returns.
Place Kicking: A. Auburn eliminated kick coverage issues this week by not kicking it to return men. I did not like the pooch kicks on the last couple of kickoffs, but it was better than allowing a long return. Daniel Carlson did a great job handling a stiff breeze in this game, hammering 5 touchbacks and making all 6 of his extra points. Auburn did not attempt a field goal.
Offensive Line: A. You would think with this grade, Auburn would have scored a lot more points. However, the offensive line isn’t but 5 guys. Louisiana Monroe was routinely rushing 7, 8, or even 9 guys to stuff the run, AND Auburn would have 3 receivers split out wide. That works out to 6 guys (including H-back Chandler Cox) trying to block more defenders. On the day, Louisiana Monroe only had 1 (ONE!) tackle for a loss and 1 quarterback hurry. That’s a fantastic job by the Auburn line, which this week featured Prince Tega Wanagho, Marquel Harrell, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Austin Golson. I counted off just a little for a few missed blocks on screens. Auburn runs tunnel screens and asks a lineman to get to the edge in a hurry and kick out a defensive back. That’s a really tough task, and big linemen can have real difficulty reaching a much faster defender in space.
Running Backs: A. As mentioned above, the blockers in this game were usually outnumbered. However, the Auburn runners were only tackled for a loss once, had no fumbles, and no dropped balls. Against a stacked defense, Auburn running backs piled up 255 yards on 40 carries, or 6.4 yards per carry. Kerryon Johnson has 1,172 rushing yards on the season, even after missing a couple of games.
Receivers: A-. Where I counted off this week was on wide-receiver screen blocking. There were several outright whiffs where the receiver had no chance with a tackler on him as the ball arrived. This has to be eliminated before playing Alabama. The Alabama corners are aggressive and can take an interception to the house if we don’t slow them down. The good news is that there weren’t any dropped passes, this game. There was one incomplete pass where Ryan Davis got a hand on it, but it was overthrown, and it was a great effort for Davis to climb the ladder and make the catch attempt. Darius Slayton has become a serious weapon, of late, having caught long bombs for touchdowns 4 weeks in a row. Earlier in the season, Slayton had serious issues with dropped passes, but he has worked hard and virtually eliminated those. You’ve got to love how these guys run after the catch, too. Ryan Davis now has 58 catches on the season, and is only 2 receptions away from the record set by Darvin Adams in 2010. Davis will have at least the Iron Bowl and a bowl game to try and break that record.
Quarterback: B. I counted off on the uncharacteristic pair of turnovers. I also felt like Jarrett Stidham was a little less accurate than usual, but he did make some good throws. In the end, Stidham finished 18 of 24 (75%) for 235 yards and a couple of touchdowns. With the first-half blocking issues mentioned above, Auburn’s yards per pass seemed way down, but second-half big plays made up for it. Stidham finished averaging 9.79 yards per pass. I also have to smile at the big-play ability of backup quarterback Malik Willis. You’d think opposing coaches would look for him to take off on the zone-read keeper, but Willis keeps on breaking those things for big gains week after week. On the season, Willis has 225 yards on just 15 carries, or 15 yards per carry!
In the end, I really can’t complain much about a 4-touchdown victory over an inspired, courageous team like this year’s edition of the Warhawks. Auburn continues to crank out big plays on offense week after week and throttles opposing offenses like a boa constrictor on a piglet. We’ve had our angst at times this year, but way more often, this is a fun team to watch.
And now, all eyes are on an Iron Bowl for the ages. The winner will go to the SEC title game in Atlanta to face the Georgia Bulldogs. If Auburn can beat Alabama, both SEC and national titles are still quite possible. Lose, and Auburn is most likely looking at a of New Year’s Day bowl.
Alabama won’t go easily. I don’t expect them to make the mistakes Georgia made last week. The Tide has a deep stable of great running backs, and they are much more explosive than Georgia’s duo. Likewise, Alabama’s receiving corps has multiple big-play guys. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is probably the best dual threat quarterback in the SEC. He doesn’t pile up numbers like some at other schools, but that’s because he rarely plays past the middle of the 3rd quarter, and Alabama is usually just handing the ball off with a big lead. Where Auburn might have a big advantage is up front. Alabama has had some troubles here and there with injured linemen, but it has been able to adjust the play-calling to minimize the damage.
Auburn will have some opportunities on offense against a banged up Alabama back seven. To do it, though, Auburn’s offensive line needs a great game. Alabama is still very stout up front and thrives on disrupting offenses at the point of attack and funneling plays sideways. Alabama is not a team that can be beaten to the corner very often and running sideways against them is a good way to go three and out. Here’s looking forward to a great week and a tremendous Iron Bowl.