Auburn escapes Oxford; what it means for the Tigers going forward

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Photo contributed by Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com 

Tank Bigsby ran wild with an increased workload, Bo Nix didn’t turn the ball over and 300-pound tight end J.J. Pegues laid one of the hardest blocks of the year, but Auburn still trailed Ole Miss by one with less than three minutes left in the game on Saturday.

The end of the fourth quarter Saturday looked all too familiar to Auburn fans. Just last week the ball was in the hands of Nix with one final chance to tie the game on a late fourth quarter drive. The Tigers moved the ball down the field but collapsed in the red zone with Nix scrambling for his life on successive plays as Auburn lost to South Carolina 30-22.

Thankfully — and luckily for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn — the game in Oxford ended differently. After Nix hit the speedy Anthony Schwartz on a 11-yard pass for a first down, the ball was at the Auburn 42-yard line. Still at least 20 yards from Anders Carlson’s field goal range, and with 1:21 left on the game clock, Auburn fans probably felt more than wary of their chances. That’s just how it has been this season. But Auburn’s Seth Williams — who at game’s end was 10th all-time in program history for catches and receiving yards — had more exciting plans for the Auburn faithful. Anyone reading this knows Nix hit Williams near the sideline, where he made a difficult catch look all too easy and raced down the sideline for a 58-yard touchdown. Auburn would attempt and make the two-point try for the final points of the game.

“Like I’ve said, a lot of times, it’s how you win, and this was a true team win today,” Malzahn said in his post-game press conference.

Malzahn is right. Overall, it was one of, if not the best performance of the year for the Tigers. Having struggled with injuries to key players all season, Auburn came into Oxford near complete health — despite the immeasurable loss of senior linebacker K.J. Britt. The health and continuity of the team really showed throughout the game as Auburn simply had more playmakers on the field than an injury — and COVID —depleted Ole Miss team. The win moves Auburn to 3-2 but was not without controversy. For the second time this year, Auburn caught a break from the officials. No one knows why they didn’t review it, but Shaun Shivers definitely muffed a kickoff and the Tigers were sparred a should-have-been safety.

But regardless of luck — something that fittingly and somehow repeatedly seems to offset the madness that comes with following Auburn football — the Tigers played well enough to position themselves to win the game … and they did. Auburn executed a game plan that Auburn fans had been clamoring about seeing for weeks: run the ball.

“All week we talked about playing hard-nosed Auburn football, running the football,” Malzahn said.

The offensive line continued their week-to-week uptrend and Tank Bigsby continued to take the college football world by storm. Bigbsy finished the day with 24 carries (8 more than his previous season-high) for 129 yards and two touchdowns. For the first time in weeks, Seth Williams looked 100% and his rapport with Nix appeared revitalized.

“Bo and Seth, they’ve got a special bond,” Malzahn said.

Bigsby was incredible and looks like the best back Auburn has fielded since Tre Mason. The only evidence one would need of that is his nation-leading 8.4 tackles broken per 25 rush attempts. He’s the third Auburn freshman running back EVER (Bo Jackson and Michael Dyer) with three 100-yard rushing performances against SEC teams. Even if the Gus Bus is low on gas, the Tank is loaded and rolling. So, enough on him.

Possibly a more meaningful contribution was the return of running back Shaun Shivers, who manifested his nickname “worm” by wiggling in and out of holes, establishing a one-two punch with Bigsby and finishing with 10 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown. As far as receiving goes, the Tigers are getting more people involved each week as freshman wide outs Kobe Hudson and Ze’vian Capers found themselves on the stat sheet against the Rebels. The main threats of Williams, Schwartz and Stove are the highlight makers on the outside, but Auburn’s offensive coordinator Chad Morris is finding ways to get more guys involved. Pegues didn’t carry the ball or catch a pass but the nation’s worst kept secret in terms of unique weapons still found a way onto social media with a cracking highlight run block. Always a positive.

The offensive line played their best game of the year, paving Ford F-150 dually-sized holes for the running backs to run through and limiting the Ole Miss defense to two sacks. Auburn did lose the versatile JUCO offensive lineman Brandon Council for the year, but there is decent depth along the line. Still, it’s another question mark on an offense that is just beginning to find answers.

Auburn led on the box score in terms of total yards, turnovers, time of possession and first downs. Although Auburn was by no means dominant, all five Tiger scoring drives were executed on 79-plus-yard drives. Was it because Ole Miss has the worst defense in the SEC or was it a sign of better things to come for the Tigers?

We shall see.

On defense, linebacker Owen Pappoe led the team in tackles (14) for the first time this year and freshman defensive lineman Coby Wooden got the start at defensive tackle, recording his third straight game with a tackle for loss. The pass rush for Auburn is still lacking, but Big Kat Bryant looked more active Saturday than any time before this season. His time is coming. The best performance from anyone on Kevin Steele’s unit has to go to Roger McCreary. Auburn’s No. 1 corner struggled last week against South Carolina’s Shi Smith but held Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore — the SEC’s leader in receiving yards coming into the game — to five receptions for 16 yards. The secondary is shaping up to be Auburn’s best unit as safeties Smoke Monday (one sack), Jamien Sherwood and Chrisitan Tutt were the second, third and fourth leading tacklers against the Rebels.

Last thing. Bo Nix did not throw a single interception and posted his highest completion percentage of the year (76.7).

That seems to be the key for this young and developing Auburn team. Play bend-don’t-break defense, win the turnover battle and run to set up the pass. Auburn may be lucky, but they are improving on all fronts.

“The big thing from my standpoint is each group picking each other up and responding when they had to,” Malzahn said.

Next week, the Tigers welcome LSU (2-2) into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Halloween. It will mark the first unranked meeting between the two schools since 1999. The Tigers have a running back on a SEC-defense killing spree, a spooky fast wide receiver and supernatural 300-pound tight end who can play any offensive position. Will it be enough to scare off the defending national champions? Hard to say. But LSU head coach Ed Orgeron puts it best for this game: “Go Tigahs.”

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