BY BRANDON HUGHES
FOR THE OBSERVER
Auburn University QB Payton Thorne amassed 405 yards of total offense and was responsible for three touchdowns, leading the Tigers (3-0) to a 45-13 homecoming victory over the Samford Bulldogs (1-2) in a sold-out Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
He became the first Auburn quarterback since Nick Marshall vs. Mississippi State in 2014 to throw for 200 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game.
“I’ve never had an offense like this where the quarterback was involved in the run game,” Thorne said of his time prior to Auburn. “It was kind of just simple zone read stuff. I never had anything blocked for me. And so I never really was out there running schemes like that. So, like I said, it was fun tonight to get that done.”
About Thorne’s performance, Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said, “I thought he played really solid. We’ve got to get more confidence in us being a balanced offense, and that was a goal. He ran when he needed to, we called some good draws with him, and he looked natural at it. …We’ve gotta find out if Payton truly is gonna function every aspect of the offense, which I thought he did tonight well.”
Auburn won the opening coin toss and elected to defer, so the Samford Bulldogs received the opening kickoff and put together an eight-play, 25-yard drive, amassing two first downs before punting the football.
The Tiger’s opening drive could not have started any better as it moved 59 yards in 12 plays on the back of six completions in seven attempts by Thorne, a seven-yard scramble on a third down and six by the junior QB and three rushes by Jarquez Hunter for 17 yards. However, with first down and goal at the Samford one yard line, the offense sputtered with incomplete passes on first and second down, a false start on third down and a pass into heavy traffic intercepted by the Bulldogs in the end zone.
When asked about the pass plays from the one-yard line, Thorne said, “We called an RPO (run pass option), so a possibility to hand it off or throw it. I thought I had the look for the throw, so I threw it. Second one, same thing. I saw my one-on-one matchup with Shane [Hooks] and thought this was a good chance to … rep it in a game.”
The Tigers’ defense held Samford to a punt following the turnover but did little on its next possession, turning it over on downs when running back Damari Alston lost a yard on fourth and one.
Auburn finally dented the scoreboard, however, on its following possession taking only 59 seconds and three plays to cover 78 yards. Thorne used a pump fake to freeze the Bulldog safety and hit a sprinting Hooks for a 32-yard touchdown. It was Hooks’ first touchdown as an Auburn Tiger and the longest touchdown pass for the Tigers in this young season.
Tiger cornerback J.D. Rhym intercepted Samford QB Michael Hiers on the second play of the following possession setting Auburn up in Samford territory. But the excitement was short-lived as Thorne threw into double coverage for his second end zone interception of the game.
Auburn’s ball hawking secondary had Thorne’s back, however, intercepting Heir yet again — this time by Jaylin Simpson — on the second play of the subsequent Samford drive setting Auburn up on the Bulldogs 22 yard line. The Tigers would capitalize on this turnover with Thorne running it in from five yards out for the first of his two rushing touchdowns in the game, giving Auburn a 14-0 lead.
Placekicker Alex McPherson would give the Tigers a 17-0 lead heading into halftime with a 22-yard field goal with 41 seconds remaining in the half.
The Tigers would come out and start the second half with a bang going on a 13-play, 76-yard march to the end zone capped by a one-yard touchdown run by QB Robby Ashford as he walked in untouched on the read option keeper to give the Tigers a 24-0 lead.
Samford would answer with a quick five play touchdown of their own on the following possession, but Auburn answered right back with their own five play drive, ending in a one-yard Hunter touchdown run, putting the Tigers up 31-7.
The Auburn defense forced a Samford punt on the ensuing drive, but Auburn’s Jay Fair was unable to corral the punt, and the Bulldogs covered the muff at the Auburn 9-yard line setting up a touchdown three plays later, making the score 31-13 after the Samford kicker, Wilson Beaverstock shanked the extra point attempt.
But that was as close as the FCS foe would get. After the teams traded punts, Thorne capped the Tigers’ second five play touchdown drive of the night with an 18-yard run to paydirt, extending the Auburn lead to 38-13.
The Auburn defense forced yet another punt and scored when Ashford lofted a pass hitting tight end Micah Riley in stride, running a seam route for the redshirt freshman’s first collegiate touchdown. Backup placekicker Marshall Meyers’ extra point try sailed through the uprights for the final points of the ballgame.
Auburn threw 36 passes against Samford, more than twice as many passes as they attempted against Cal a week ago. Thorne finished the game 24-32 with 282 yards and a touchdown. In the first quarter alone, Thorne was 10-14 with 93 yards. For comparison, last week against Cal, Thorne went 9-14 for 94 yards for the entire game.
“A lot of the throws in the first half were truly off the run game,” Freeze said after the game. “The way their safeties were playing, they were getting eight in the box pretty quick. It was the read for Payton to throw it based on the numbers. I don’t think we called an extraordinarily large amount [of passes]. The last series with Robby, every one of those were runs, except the last one…that he completed for a touchdown.”
Thorne had 11 rushes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. That was the most rushing yards by an Auburn QB since Nick Marshall ran for 214 yards against Tennessee in 2013.
Auburn’s 562 yards of total offense was its largest output since it put up 613 yards against Akron in the opening game of the 2021 season.
Auburn now has five interceptions in its first three games. The Tigers recorded six interceptions all of last season.
Simpson intercepted his third pass of the season Saturday night. Simpson is the first Auburn player with interceptions in three consecutive games since Jerraud Powers in 2007.
The QB rotation against Cal was the topic at water coolers and message boards everywhere this week. On the Tiger Talk call-in show prior to the Samford game, Freeze was asked about the quarterback rotation in California, and he said, “I don’t think you’ll see that from me again.” That proved prophetic as backup QB Ashford didn’t enter the game until the second half, and that was in a goal line situation in which he scored a touchdown. He appeared again in the third quarter in another goal line situation in which Auburn scored another touchdown and then not again until the game was out of reach when he appeared in a true backup role, looking solid, going 3-4 for 58 yards and a TD.
Auburn finished off its non-conference schedule Saturday night and begins conference play next Saturday against Western Division rival Texas A&M Aggies in its second road contest of the season.
The Tigers are 4-1 all-time in College Station.
Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. on ESPN.