By Wil Crews
The Auburn Tigers started slowly on Saturday, but a second half explosion from Bo Nix and Seth Williams led the No. 8 Tigers to a 29-13 win over the No. 23 Kentucky Wildcats.
The sophomore quarterback and junior receiver were catalysts for the Tiger offense as the two connected for four completions, 72 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
“I’m just excited for our team. It gave us a good measuring stick of where we’re at,” said Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn.
The first half was a sluggish battle to see which team could shake off the rust the fastest. Kentucky got on the scoreboard first with a 35-yard run from Kavosiey Smoke that capped off an 11-play, 93-yard drive. The reputable Wildcat offensive line bossed around an inexperienced Auburn defense that was without preseason first team All-SEC defensive end Big Kat Bryant after he picked up an injury knock in warm-ups.
Nix’s leadership role in the offense for the Tigers is unquestioned, but questions surrounding their crowded backfield room, offensive line and the revamped defense remained. It was Shaun Shivers who got the start at running back, but D.J. Williams got in the mix and scored Auburn’s first touchdown of 2020 on a one-yard run. Still, concerns about the new offensive line – which consisted of four new starters – were justified as Auburn struggled to run the ball and the best first half offensive highlights consisted of two Bo Nix pooch punts. The Tiger defense was slow to start as well. Kentucky outgained the Tigers 243 yards to 143 in the first half. Furthermore, the Wildcats went 8-10 on third down conversions and dominated the time of possession (21:09 to 8:51). The Wildcat offensive line created semi-truck-sized holes for the backs to run through and provided enough time for senior quarterback Terry Wilson to scramble and make things happen with his legs.
The Tigers went into the break up 8-7 after a 100-yard pick six by Auburn defensive back Roger McCreary was called back.
“Of course, it went for six and was called back, but still, just the momentum and not giving up any points to still have the lead at halftime was huge,” Malzahn said.
Although they led on the scoreboard, the Tigers had been generally outplayed on both sides of the ball.
Auburn came out of the locker rooms and looked like a completely different team for the second half. Nix stopped punting and started throwing dimes. Seth Williams reminded people why he’s the best wide receiver in the SEC. The pair connected on two touchdowns that were straight out of Auburn fans’ dreams. The first was a Mahomes-like pass from Nix as he scrambled right and zipped a side-armed throw over Kentucky defenders to find a leaping Williams in the back of the end zone for an 11-yard Auburn touchdown. Auburn led 15-7.
The second Nix-to-Williams connection came with 10:21 left in the fourth quarter. Williams turned a simple fade route into a SportsCenter top-10 play when he Mossed the Kentucky defensive back, secured possession, held the ball high in the air with one hand and left the defender dumbfounded, wondering why he ever challenged the Tiger wideout in the first place.
“I thought Seth Williams made two big-time plays right there to help us,” Malzahn said.
Nix decided to share the love and found senior Eli Stove on an out-and-up double move for a 21-yard touchdown: the final score of the game. Terry Wilson threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Akeem Hayes but Kentucky failed the two-point attempt and the final score was Auburn 29 – Kentucky 13.
Nix and Williams were the story of the second half, but so was the Tiger defense. They shut down the Wildcats, holding them to 25 yards rushing (compared to 120 in the first half), 2-of-9 on third downs (8-of-10 in the first half) and only 15 minutes of possession (21 in the first half). The Tigers also blew up a Wildcat fake punt on fourth down that led to the Stove touchdown, and Jamien Sherwood forced and recovered a fumble from Wilson. “Our defense did a really good job of stopping them between the tackles. That was something that we really focused on, and our guys did a super job of that,” Malzahn added.
Nix finished 16-27 with 233 yards and three touchdowns; and two punts for 77 yards (both downed inside the 20). Williams finished with six receptions for 112 yards and his two highlight reel touchdowns.
There are still valid concerns about the offensive line and the young Auburn defense. But the offense and defense complemented each other for the entire second half.
“The defense getting three turnovers was huge, we didn’t turn the ball over offensively,” Malzahn said.
After the weekend’s games ended, Auburn finished with the best red-zone defense in the country. It’s just one week, but the Tigers looked to find more answers than questions in their first game. Most importantly, Nix looked like an elite quarterback and his connection with Williams was telepathic.
The Tigers open as a seven-point underdog in their matchup against Georgia next week in Athens – a place where Auburn has not won since 2005.