Five Things We Learned From Auburn’s Season-Opening Win Over Mercer, Five Things to Look Forward to This Saturday

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2022-09-03 Running back Tank Bigsby rushes in the Auburn vs Mercer game, Saturday, Sept. 3. PHOTOS BY ROBERT NOLES / THE OBSERVER

BY WIL CREWS

SPORTSCREWS@

OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

AUBURN —

The Auburn Tigers (1-0) won their season-opening matchup at home versus the Mercer Bears (1-1) Saturday, 42-16.

The beginning of head coach Bryan Harsin’s second year on the Plains resulted in a convincing victory that starts the Tigers down the right path in 2022. Auburn rushed for nearly 300 yards with a committed ground attack, utilizing its two best backs and backup quarterback Robby Ashford to maintain control of the contest and the game clock.

A lengthy rain delay couldn’t stop the orange-and-blue, and neither could the Bears. Here is what we learned about Auburn in week one, and five things we can look forward to in week two.

WHAT WE LEARNED FROM WEEK ONE 

1. T.J. Finley can operate this offense. Robby Ashford can ELEVATE it. Finley had an okay game against the Bears, going 9-for-14 on his pass attempts for 112 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown. His two turnovers were borderline terrible, however, as he stared down a receiver on both instances before throwing into a crowded window. Ashford on the other hand was the most welcome surprise of the contest. Spelling Finley at times, the redshirt freshman transfer completed 4-of-7 passes for 100 yards — including six carries for 68 yards on the ground. Whether he supplants Finley completely or just shares a two-quarterback system with the LSU transfer for most of the season, the Tigers — and the nation — may have discovered their “x-factor” in week one.

2. Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter are 1A and 1B at the running back position. This might look like a stretch judging by the carry totals — Bigsby had 16 and Hunter had eight. However, Hunter was trusted near the goal line which resulted in three rushing touchdowns compared to Bigsby’s two. The explosiveness, power and speed of both backs are similar and Harsin and his staff showed the fan base Saturday that the Tigers have a backfield with two trusty and effective runners.

3. The performance of the offensive line as a whole cannot be judged too closely, but Tate Johnson looked promising as starting center. Although his snaps to quarterbacks T.J. Finley or Robby Ashford were slightly inaccurate at times, Johnson performed well in his first major action at the position, grading out as PFF’s No. 1 center in the SEC for week 1.

4. Javarious Johnson, Shedrick Jackson and John Samuel Shenker are Auburn’s top-three pass catching options. Aside from Ashford, the biggest surprise contributor to Auburn’s win was from junior receiver Javarrious Johnson. The 5-foot-10-inch, 160-pound slot receiver caught four passes for 117 yards — including a 56-yard from Ashford in the third quarter. Jackson tied Johnson for a team-high in receptions with four, and caught all of them for 47 yards. Shenker was on the reception end of Finley’s only touchdown pass in the second quarter. One of Auburn’s biggest offseason questions, the receiver group definitively exceeded expectations in week one. 

5. Cam Riley looks to have emerged as the partner to Owen Pappoe at linebacker in Auburn’s defense. Following 15 tackles for the whole of 2021, the 6-foot-6-inch Riley led the Tigers with 15 tackles in Saturday’s contest. The Bears totaled just 80 rushing yards, and Riley’s down-hill style aggressive tackling contributed to the suffocating effort by the defense.

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN WEEK TWO

1. More snaps for Ashford. Before Finley’s two interceptions, the junior commanded Auburn’s offense well, going 8-for-9 with 100 yards and one touchdown as the Tigers paced Mercer 28-0. However, the dynamism Ashford showcased will make it hard to keep him off the field. Can a two-quarterback system work? Well, Finley and Ashford both played well enough to earn snaps in next week’s matchup. Although it’s another sub-par opponent which warrants caution when reading into things too much, at the least, the contest should provide more clarity on the long-term viability of the current situation.

2. More dominance from Auburn’s front seven. Pre-season All-American edge rusher Derrick Hall registered Auburn’s only sack on Saturday. Throughout the offseason, Auburn’s defensive line was talked about as the strength of the team. One sack and just three tackles-for-loss doesn’t mirror that fact.

3. Generating turnovers. Although Auburn limited Mercer’s offense to just 12 points and 271 total yards, the Tigers failed to force a turnover in the game. Losing the turnover margin 2-0 might work against an FCS opponent like Mercer, but the Tigers cannot afford similar results against the likes of Penn State and the rest of the SEC opponents on their schedule.

4. Improvement/continuity of the offensive line. Auburn had two new starters on the offensive line against Mercer, Johnson and right guard Kam Stutts. The former was listed as a co-starter with Keiondre Jones entering the game, but has since been listed as the lone starter in Auburn’s updated week-two depth chart. A week two performance from the boys up front that is similar to that against Mercer should do well to have Auburn’s confidence near peak as it welcomes Penn State to Jordan-Hare Stadium in week three’s highly-anticipated matchup.

5. Playing a clean game. Auburn committed just three penalties for 20 yards against the Bears. Tigers fans should look for another (mostly) penalty-free performance from their team in week two as a second inferior opponent is welcomed into Jordan-Hare Stadium to begin the season.

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