Explosive Third Quarter Seals Ideal Two-Game Start for Tigers

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Smoke Monday (21) and Nehemiah Pritchett (18) celebrate after blocking a field goal. photo by robert noles / opelika observer

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com 

Through two weeks of the 2021 college football season, the Auburn Tigers have had one of easiest schedules in the country.

Still, however, the Tigers have done what they were supposed to do — and then some — dispatching Akron 60-10 last week and dominating Alabama State University, 63-0, on Saturday.

“Overall, it was good,” said Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin in the opening statement of his post-game press conference Saturday. “Our guys came out there and executed it. So our staff, players, it was a credit to them.”

Auburn was sluggish to start the 11 a.m. kickoff game. The Tigers only led 20-0 at half, as the offense failed to find a rhythm with a struggling offensive line and junior Auburn quarterback Bo Nix being out-passed by ASU, 83 yards to 80.

“So, we missed a few opportunities early, and maybe the momentum wasn’t quite there because of that,” Harsin said of his team’s early-game struggles.

“I think we bothered ourselves probably more than anything, but they played hard, and we felt like that too.”

Following some halftime adjustments, the Tigers exploded for a five-touchdown third quarter (tied for most in a quarter in school history; New Mexico State 1993) to stretch the lead and establish the forthright dominance that was predicted pre-game.

Despite the lackluster beginning, by game’s-end, it was a record-setting performance on The Plains Saturday. 

For the game, the Tigers had a pair of 100-yard rushers — Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter — for the first time since 2014 (Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne against Louisiana Tech) and had scored 60 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1932.

Auburn also blocked a field goal and a punt in the same game for the first time since Alabama 2013, registered the most second half points (42) since 1985 and scored a touchdown in all three facets of the game — offense, defense and special teams.

Individually, there were more record-breaking performances. The freshman Hunter had the longest run in Auburn history (94 yards; the previous long was 92 yards by Ralph O’Gwynne vs. Loyola in 1936.), and Bigsby’s 51-yard run in the third quarter was a new career long.

Transfer Georgia wide receiver Demetrious Robinson also had his first breakout game of the season, scoring three touchdowns. His 36-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter had shades of Anthony Schwartz against Texas A&M in 2019 written all over it.

“Yeah, he’s got great speed,” Harsin said of the play. “He was able to take a little reverse and go score. I thought that was a really good run.”

Robinson’s performance Saturday reiterates his ability to step up and claim the lead receiver role that was, and is, a gaping question mark for the Tigers this season.

“I think he needs to be an example for the younger players, and I believe that about the older players on our team, especially the ones that are on the field,” Harsin said of Robinson. “He’s a really bright player and a great person; I think he’s done a good job.”

Defensively, senior Zakoby McClain led the way with 10 tackles and his middle linebacker running mate Owen Pappoe finished second with six. Defensive coordinator Derrick Mason’s unit had 11 tackles for loss, two sacks and two turnovers forced.

In totality, Auburn has begun the season like a greased up hibachi grill — on fire. The Tigers’ third quarter on Saturday — eight plays, 299 yards, 37.38 yards per play and two interceptions — is the embodiment of that.

The Tigers now rank No. 1 in the FBS in: scoring offense (61.0), offensive yards per play (9.84) scoring defense (5.0, tied with UGA) and defensive yards per play (3.03).

Their two-week start to the season has taken the Tigers from unranked to No. 22 in the AP coaches poll.

The real tests begin this week, however. Auburn travels to Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania, to take on No. 10 Penn State at 6:30 p.m. on ABC.

“The goal is every week that we continue to get better in the things that we’re doing and then we focus on the most important things each and every week, which goes right back to our process and what we do Sunday through Friday,” Harsin said. “A new challenge with the Penn State game being on the road with the travel and obviously the environment. We’ll talk about that as the week goes on.”

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