Auburn Trending in Wrong Direction as Defense Falters Against Miss. State
By Wil Crews
Inside of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, a nightmare unfolded in front of the Auburn faithful’s eyes.
Following an offensive outburst that saw Auburn score on its first four drives of the game, the Tigers choked away a 28-3 lead, allowing Mississippi State to post 40 unanswered points and leave The Plains with a 43-34 victory.
A number of things contributed to Auburn’s fourth loss of the season, none more worrisome than the calamity of a second-half defensive performance from the Tigers.
Coming into the contest, a point of focus for Auburn was getting pressure on Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers. The sophomore QB came into the game leading the country in completion percentage, but early on it looked as if the Tigers had the formula for disrupting the Bulldog’s passing attack, limiting Rogers to just 62 yards on 12-of-20 passing on Miss. State’s first three drives.
Following that point, however, Rogers finished the game 32-of-35 passing, scoring six touchdowns in the process as he repeatedly torched the Auburn secondary. The lack of pressure from Auburn’s defensive line was the biggest factor in Rogers’ success.
The d-line has been one of the Tigers’ most glaring issues all season and their inability to hurry, pressure or sack Rogers allowed Mike Leach to open up his offense and pick Auburn apart from sideline to sideline.
Many other factors contributed to Auburn’s loss, but defensive coordinator Derek Mason will undoubtedly take most of the heat for his reluctance to change the game plan from a pass rush standpoint.
Outside of the complete farcical nature of Auburn’s defensive collapse, the Tigers did little to help themselves in the ballgame — specifically following the first four scoring drives.
The second most glaring issue for the Tigers this season has been the offensive line. While the unit has been far from terrible — particularly performing better in pass blocking scenarios — the tone setters for Auburn’s offense looked tone-deaf Saturday as they failed to provide adequate rushing lanes for the running backs. If you take away Ja’Varrius Johnson’s 57-yard rush that was actually just a backwards screen pass, the Tigers posted just 80 rush yards on 26 attempts. That’s a 3.1 yard-per-carry average, over 2 yards lower than Auburn’s season average and a figure that would rank second to last in the SEC in terms of team’s season averages.
Auburn’s inability to effectively run the ball was reflected in short drives and the game’s final time of possession numbers — which favored Miss. State by over 10 minutes.
The choppy, uninspiring Auburn offense, compounded with the long, touchdown-resulting drives from the Bulldogs took the momentum away from the Tigers and the life out of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Some questionable calls by the officiating (one of which resulted in a bogus ejection of Auburn edge rusher T.D. Moultry) undoubtedly changed the game too, but Auburn has to look inward when evaluating the loss.
When they look at the tape, there will not be many positives after those first four drives. The fact that both Bo Nix and kicker Anders Carlson sustained season-ending injuries only make it harder for Auburn to move forward from here.
If there were any positives, receiver Kobe Hudson was definitely one. Including a one-handed touchdown snag, the sophomore posted a career-high 107 yards on eight receptions.
That is where the silver linings stop, however, as Auburn’s season has turned from eternally optimistic to near worst-case scenario in just two weeks.
Now, the Tigers push on with a litany of uncertainties. How will T.J. Finley fill in for Nix? Who kicks field goals? Is Mason’s job in jeopardy? Is there hope to beat Bama?
The answer to the last one is most definitely yes. Anything can happen when the Iron Bowl takes place in Jordan-Hare. Still, however, the Tigers have to turn their attention to this Saturday where a tough road test against South Carolina awaits. The Tigers may just be playing for a better quality bowl game now, but these next two games could mean much more when it comes to the future success of the program under Harsin.