By Wil Crews
Leading by six with 13:31 left in the fourth quarter, Auburn’s Zakoby McClain had a potential interception tip off his hands and into the hands of a Texas A&M receiver who was conveniently placed in the end zone. The score put the Aggies up by one and the Tigers never saw a lead again, losing to Texas A&M 31-20 on senior day.
“Yeah I mean, you’re playing a good team,” Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn said in his post-game press conference. “It’s going to come down to just a few plays if you’re going to have a good chance to win. Give the guy credit. We thought we picked it off. We didn’t. It got tipped and he kept his eye on it and he made a touchdown.”
The could-have-been interception flipped the game’s momentum on its head. Although Auburn was behind 14-10 at the half, the Tigers came out of the break and put up 10 points in their first two drives of the third quarter to take a 20-14 lead. After A&M regained the lead in the fourth quarter, the Auburn offense resigned quietly with two three-and-outs and then a turnover on downs that effectively ended the game.
Unfortunately for McClain, the missed opportunity at a turnover stained an otherwise great performance. The junior linebacker led the team with 17 total tackles, and he was the one bright spot on an Auburn defense that struggled mightily against the No. 5 ranked Aggies.
In total, the A&M offense put up 509 yards and gashed the Tiger defensive line at will, rushing for 313. The Aggies’ rushing attack was clearly the difference, as they violated an Auburn rush defense that ranked No. 10 in the SEC coming into the game. Isaiah Spiller led the way for the Aggies with 20 carries for 120 yards; Devon Achane added 99 yards on nine carries; and quarterback Kellen Mond added 60 yards and two scores with his legs.
“Well, it was just a matter of stopping the run, that’s pretty simple,” Malzahn said about the defense’s struggles. “We couldn’t stop them. They did a good job. The offensive line is good, their back is good. We couldn’t stop the run. That was a big factor to this.”
The combination of Texas A&M’s commitment to the run and Auburn’s porous third-down defense is ultimately what undid the Tigers. It’s no secret that Auburn has struggled getting off the field this season; the Tigers defense ranked No. 125 out of 130 in third-down defense coming into the game. Forcing red zone turnovers had often been the saving grace for the Tigers. On Saturday, however, the turnover never came, and A&M went 7-for-11 on third downs, contributing to the Aggies’ massive 16-minute advantage in time of possession.
“We couldn’t stop the run. We couldn’t get off the field. They kept the ball away,” Malzahn said in his post-game opening statement.
While the Auburn defense struggled to stop the A&M rushing attack, the Tigers offense found some unlikely success against the second ranked SEC rush defense of the Aggies. The emergence of Tank Bigsby has been one of the most encouraging parts of the season for Auburn, but with the freshman running back clearly still not at 100% he carried the ball only nine times against A&M. Bigsby still churned out a team-high 76 yards, but most of that came on a 42-yard run in the third quarter.
“He broke the long one and I think if he would have been healthy, he would have house-called that,” Malzahn said.
Shaun Shivers matched Bigsby with nine carries – which he turned into 68 yards – and Nix added 49 yards on the ground, including one spectacular Houdini-like escape act where he avoided multiple A&M pass rushers and covered about 40 yards of field on a five-yard touchdown run.
While Nix looked adequately fleet of foot, where Auburn really struggled was in the passing game. Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz were both held to just three catches, and Bo Nix was efficient but ineffective, finishing 15-of-23 for just 144 yards. We didn’t even get to see JJ Pegues touch the ball, adding to the day’s disappointment.
The loss puts Auburn at 5-4, locked into a seventh straight season with four or more losses and without a win against a top-25 team this year. The excuses about lost spring and summer practice time have faded and the team still looks bereft of any consistency. It was a disappointing day overall and a loss that will leave a nasty taste in the mouths of the 18 seniors who played their final home game on Saturday.
“Like I said earlier, the big thing for me is I’m disappointed for our seniors,” Malzahn said. “We had a chance to play a top-5 team at home on senior day and win, and we didn’t seize the moment.”
Interesting choice of words there, “seize the moment.” The inability to do just that is beginning to define the Auburn teams under Malzahn. It’s undeniably wearing on the fans’ image of the head coach and this loss was a missed opportunity to salvage a decent season.
The Tigers can finish the year on a positive note with a win next week at Mississippi State. Is Malzahn coaching for his job? Can we discount this year because of COVID? Do fans have unrealistic expectations for an Auburn coach in the Saban-era? All these things have to be considered. But, a loss Saturday against the Bulldogs would be Malzahn’s lowest point at Auburn. And it would certainly push the fan base – if not already there – over the edge.