Harsin’s First Game Raises Expectations for the Tigers

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PHOTO BY ROBERT NOLES / OPELIKA OBSERVER

BY WIL CREWS
SPORTSCREWS@OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

Bryan Harsin’s Auburn Tigers took the field for the first time Saturday as heavy favorites over the Akron Zips.

Few, however, expected to see the 60-10 shellacking that Auburn fans inside Jordan-Hare Stadium witnessed that evening. 

“I thought our guys came out ready to play, did a lot of work, a lot of focus on what they had to do the last nine months to prepare, and today was an example of what we’re capable of doing when we go out there and play good football,” Harsin said in his post-game press conference.

Now, let us all remember to avoid overreaction Monday … This team still has many question marks. But at the same time, following Saturday’s performance, you would be hard pressed to find a reason not to raise your expectations for the orange-and-blue in 2021. And rightfully so. Auburn was cerebral in every facet of the game.

The Tigers were balanced — 316 yards rushing and 297 passing. The Tigers were disciplined — committing only three penalties. The Tigers were efficient — averaging 10.4 yards per play. The Tigers were dominant — registering six sacks, converting four red zone trips into four touchdowns, committing zero turnovers, allowing zero sacks and scoring 60 points.

“That’s been the message for a while, just play good ball, take care of it, do things in situational football, hard things where we execute,” Harsin said. “We did that in the red zone, we did that on third downs.”

Offensively, junior quarterback Bo Nix, who has more than his fair share of doubters, played the best (statistical) game of his career. The third-year starter posted the program’s highest in-game completion percentage ever (min. 20 attempts), finding seven different receivers on 20-for-22 passing, 275 yards and three touchdowns.

“What I got to see was his presence, leadership in the huddle, his poise on the two-minute drive to get us into field-goal range and get points at the end of the half,” Harsin said of Nix. “Overall, at that position, the decision-making, he was accurate with his throws, he did a good job on the sideline of getting adjustments with coach Bobo and getting that explained with the wide receivers, the tailbacks, the tight ends, amongst the players when he needed to. Now we can build from that going to the next game and hopefully continue with that decision-making and that type of execution.”

Additionally, the offensive line, one of the few position groups scrutinized more frequently than Nix, did everything a coach could ask as they paved the way for a 9.9 yard-per-rush average and kept Nix from going down in the backfield.

“You could just feel those guys wanting to go out there and have a really good performance,” Harsin said. “It was important to them to play well today, and I thought they did that.”

Furthermore, the Tigers offense saw promising performances from a number of relatively low expectation guys like receiver Shedrick Jackson (led the team with 79 yards on five receptions), tight end John Samuel Shenker (played a majority of first-team snaps in various positions and caught five passes) and third string freshman running back Jarquez Hunter (110 yards rushing on nine carries). 

Defensively, there was also little to scrutinize. The one negative could be that the Tigers failed to force a turnover. Akron put the ball on the turf four times, however, the Tigers were just unable to recover.

“We were flying around,” Harsin said of his defense.  “We tackled well. I thought we were relentless in our pursuit to get to the ball.”

Entering the game, Auburn fans (and the entire SEC, really) would admit that the Tigers boast a formidable secondary and linebacker unit. The questions were mostly schematic (with it being defensive coordinator Derrick Mason’s first year) and on the defensive line (things just have not been the same since Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson departed for the NFL two years ago).

One name that stood out Saturday amongst the defensive linemen was senior T.D. Moultry. The edge rusher tied Zakoby McClain for a team-high seven tackles, three of which were for loss, and registered one sack.

“He’s got that motor that I think we saw that tonight, and I think he was able to go out there and make plays,” Harsin said. 

Furthermore, senior defensive tackle Marquis Burks (who transferred in last year and registered just one sack all season) led the team with two sacks. The emergence of Moultry and Burks could mean the Tigers have top-notch units at all three levels of the defense. 

Generally speaking, Auburn did what it was expected to do — and then some — against the Zips. As a result, expectations have already begun to climb. Auburn’s No. 25 ranking in this week’s AP Poll — and the fact that Nix’s Heisman odds jumped from +10,000 to +6,000 — is a perfect reflection of that. If you need more proof of the potential residing on The Plains this season … two words that haven’t even made this story yet … Tank Bigsby.

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