Tigers Win a Tough Opener! (Grading Auburn’s 21–16 Win Over Washington)
–JaTarvious Whitlow hammers in the game winner!
War Eagle everybody! It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s season opening 21–16 win over number 6-ranked Washington in the Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. For about a quarter, it looked like Auburn had the potential to run the Huskies out of the building. It was 9–3 Auburn, after one quarter, and it probably should have been much worse. Credit the Huskies. They got up off the mat and fought back. A tough, back and forth defensive slugfest ensued, and Auburn did what it had to do to win the ball game.
Auburn’s offensive game plan seemed to be to run the ball with just enough short passes to keep the middle of the defense honest. Washington really made the going tough running the ball. Crisp passing and some athletic receiver play enabled Auburn to move the chains despite not being able to move Washington’s tough, veteran defensive front. Auburn ran into trouble in the red zone where the field shortens and a good secondary is less susceptible to screens and short passes. Auburn did manage a red zone touchdown in the first quarter but otherwise had to settle for 5 field goal attempts in the first half.
Washington did a better job of tackling in the open field in the 2nd half and pressuring Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Drive after drive derailed, but the Tigers were able to punt it out and avoided costly turnovers. With the game on the line late, Jarrett Stidham engineered a 76-yard, 10-play drive that won the game. A 3rd and 9 checkdown pass to Chandler Cox kept the drive alive. A back shoulder fade pass to Darius Slayton moved it to the Washington 25. Auburn took it the rest of the way on the ground, with several tough Kam Martin runs giving Auburn yet another first down in the red zone. On 3rd and 7, a conservative draw play was called, and it caught Washington off guard. JaTarvious Whitlow barreled 10 yards to paydirt, running over a Washington safety caught in the crosshairs. It was up to the defense to preserve the win.
Defensively, Auburn controlled the line of scrimmage much of the game. Schematically, Auburn opted mostly to rush 4 guys and play and contain the run. As we saw at times last season, particularly against LSU, the Washington brain trust had the quarterback just lobbing up fade balls down the sideline. As against LSU, it worked far too often. Washington receivers made some great catches, but Auburn’s secondary drew drive-extending penalties way too often. Washington was able to claw its way back into the game on these throws, getting into field goal range and scoring a touchdown on one of those passes. Early in the 4th quarter, Washington took a 16–15 lead, and things looked dim.
Auburn’s defense was able to rise up and came up with critical stops to keep the game from getting away. None was bigger than a crushing fumble caused by Nick Coe when the Huskies had the ball at the Auburn 3-yard line. After Auburn took back the lead, the Auburn defense reached down and put even more pressure on Washington quarterback Jake Browning, resulting in back-to-back sacks to end the last Husky drive.
There was a lot to like about a special teams unit that was less of a liability than last year’s group. Other than a penalty that negated a good punt return, a short punt, and a missed field goal in close, this was a solid effort. Washington did not even get a chance to return anything! Kickoffs went for touchbacks, and punts were so high that any return would have been ill-advised. Auburn looked good returning both kicks and punts.
Unit grades after the jump!
Defensive Line: A-. This unit dominated a good offensive line. I have to count off a little on the backside pass rush, which got caught too far in the backfield a few times, allowing successful runs to the outside. Also, there were 4 offsides flags called on the defensive line. Auburn did not give this group much help in the pass rush, but the unit still tallied 3 sacks and 5 tackles for loss. In total, the line contributed 11 total tackles and 1 pass breakup by Marlon Davidson.
Linebackers: A. The total tackles numbers don’t tell the true story of this performance as Auburn played linebacker with leverage in this game. Time and time again these guys forced Washington runners into traffic and waiting help. The linebackers only had 16 total tackles but were in the right place at the right time all day. The Auburn front 7 held Washington to 3.1 yards per carry.
Secondary: C+. I have to complain about the corners grabbing, drawing flags, and playing with their backs to the ball too often. I think there were adjustments made as the game went on, and the performance improved to the point that Washington wasn’t able to get that knock-out, go-ahead touchdown in the 2nd half. This secondary was tested and made 25 tackles. I feel with 3 or 4 new starters at their positions out there, things will improve as the season progresses.
Punting: B+. Auburn only punted 3 times in this game. Aiden Marshall hit the first one for only 30 yards. Arryn Siposs came in and banged high punts of 40 and 47 yards. Washington was not able return any of those punts.
Punt Returns: A-. I have to count off for an illegal block penalty that wiped out a long return, but Ryan Davis was able to field all 3 Washington punts, despite the Huskies trying to kick away from him. Davis had 42 yards on 3 returns, a healthy 14.0 yards per return average. The return that was wiped out by penalty would have been an additional 30 or more yards.
Kick Returns: B-. Auburn returned 4 kickoffs for a total of 64 yards, which works out to 16 yards per return. One of those was upback Spencer Nigh fielding a pooch kick for only 2 yards, which was the right thing to do, but it hurt the average. Auburn lost a net 7 yards by not taking the fair catch on the 3 balls inside the 20. However, one will never get a great, game changing return if the ball is fair caught every time.
Place Kicking: B-. Auburn had a good debut in this game from freshman kicker Anders Carlson. Carlson hit on 3 of 5 field goal attempts and drilled 6 touchbacks on kickoffs. I did not count off for the missed 54-yard kick. I consider anything outside of 40 yards to be a coin-flip situation, at best. I did count off for missing a chip shot in a tight ballgame.
Offensive Line: C. I felt like Auburn did decently in pass protection but got little push on running plays. Auburn’s interior could not handle Washington’s tackles very well. What they had to end up doing is to just try to get in the way of the tackle away from the play side and try to double team the play-side tackle. This meant that no Auburn lineman was getting downfield, and Washington linebackers and safeties were able to come up free to take on Auburn backs. The line had a couple of holding calls and false starts on the day as well as a chop-block call. Even with all the criticism, at least these guys seemed to know who to block, unlike last year.
Running Backs: A. Some might question this grade, but I thought Auburn backs played admirably given the conditions. Often, Kam Martin and JaTarvious Whitlow were asked to plow into the line with no lead blockers and no help against the Washington back 7. They did not put the ball on the ground even once, caught all of the little dump-off passes thrown their way, and did a good job in pass protection when asked. Chandler Cox had a fine game, and I was glad to see him more involved in the passing game. Strategically, if the other team is dropping in coverage, it makes no sense to have a fullback standing around with no one to block. Auburn leaked Cox out into the flat and made Washington pay for that with some key first downs. For all the talk about how dangerous Husky back Myles Gaskin is, Kam Martin had 112 total yards rushing and receiving to Gaskin’s 75.
Receivers: A-. I think there was one ball this week that could be ruled a drop against an Auburn receiver, but it wasn’t a great throw, and there was contact from defenders as well. The game plan didn’t really allow for much down the field. Going against All Americans in the Washington secondary in game one, a conservative plan was in order. Auburn ran a number of screens, and blocking was good for the most part on those. Ryan Davis picked up where he left off last year with 7 catches. When Auburn did fire some intermediate routes on target, the catch was made every time by various receivers, including freshman Seth Williams. Sal Cannella had the catch of the day on an early touchdown.
Quarterback: A-. This was a game that could easily derail a quarterback. With no effective running game and a ball hawking secondary, this was a situation where lesser quarterbacks lose ballgames. Stidham was patient, took what the defense gave, and was careful with the ball. He was also able to pick up some key yardage on the ground when Auburn desperately needed it. No one’s going to rave over a 7.5 yards per pass average, but that’s pretty good against a Washington defense. What’s more impressive is a 72 percent completion percentage against a good defensive backfield.
From the audio I had on the game, it sounded like the Auburn crowd was loud and into the game. While I had technical difficulties during the game, it sounded like the Georgia Dome crew handled everything well. I was also pleased that Auburn finally seemed to have figured out the slipping shoe issue in this venue. I saw Kam Martin slip down one time, but he was attempting a really sharp cutback on that fall.
I’ve seen lots of complaints about the officials, and of course fans are going to moan when frequent flags are thrown. In the end, the Big Ten crew called a more strict game than an SEC squad probably would, but that had to be dealt with by both sides. My observation is that Auburn seemed to get flagged for pass interference pretty easily, while it seemed like our defensive line was being grabbed and tackled with only a couple of holding calls. That’s probably homerism on my part. I was with folks on Washington boards wanting targeting calls when Auburn would hit Jake Browning. I agreed with them on at least one big hit.
From here, Auburn gets a couple of weeks to work on improvement. Alabama State visits next Saturday. I would like to see a crisp early performance by the starters, and then a lot of guys getting to play as the game goes on. In 2 weeks, LSU comes to town for what should be a big game. I’m quite curious to see what LSU does tonight against Miami. A lot of folks anticipate problems in this one. Given how the SEC looked yesterday, I would not be surprised if LSU ambushes Miami with some intense play. They certainly used to do that regularly in season openers under Les Miles!