BY BRANDON HUGHES
FOR THE OBSERVER
Saturday evening in front of a decidedly partisan Auburn crowd in Nashville, AU (5-4, 2-4) utilized explosive plays on the ground and through the air to defeat Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6) 31-15 to break the Tigers’ eight-game road conference losing streak. Auburn’s last SEC road win was in Fayetteville against Arkansas on Oct. 16, 2021.
Though the game was played more than 300 miles away from the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn fans effectively took over FirstBank Stadium, creating a home-field advantage for the visiting Tigers. The Tiger takeover was the talk of players after the game.
“It was crazy,” said Auburn defensive back Jaylin Simpson. “I heard that we were going to have a lot of fans here, but I didn’t think it was going to be like — it was orange on both sides. That was crazy, but our fans are great, man.”
“It was awesome,” said quarterback Payton Thorne. “Our fans have shown up all year and been outstanding. We were walking out of the tunnel, and I said, ‘This is like a home game.’”
Auburn won the coin toss and deferred its decision to the second half. Vanderbilt took the opening kickoff and, beginning at its own 25-yard line, put together an impressive drive against a Tiger defense that has been prone to giving up yards in its opponents’ opening drives. However, the defense bent but didn’t break—another characteristic of this Tiger defense—as the Commodore’s nine-play, 40-yard drive ended in a missed 42-yard field goal.
Though the Tigers allowed the Vanderbilt offense three first downs on the game’s open-ing drive, it would allow only one the remainder of the first half to go along with five three-and-outs.
Offensive coordinators will typically script the first few plays of the game, and “surviv-ing the script” appeared to be a driving theme for the week.
“Our coaches just say, ‘Survive the script,’” said cornerback D.J. James after the game. “Every coach, every offensive coordinator, they’ve got a script for the first 10 plays. They think they’ll get the defense they’re going against. Once we get through the script, we’ve pretty much got what we’re doing. And we’ll just adjust on the sideline.”
Simpson echoed James’ sentiment: “(The script is) when they give you stuff you’ve nev-er seen before on tape. The stuff you’ve been studying? They not going to run that. They’re going to run something completely different. So, we survived that, man. I feel like we’re good with any team. We haven’t been starting off too hot almost every game, but we survive that script, and I feel like nobody can mess with us. That plays a big role.”
Having lost its last two visits to Nashville, a fast start on offense was important for the Tigers. Taking over at its own 25-yard line after the missed field goal, Thorne took the opening snap on a keeper around left end for a gain of eight yards. Facing second and two, Auburn’s Jarquez Hunter began what would be a career day with an explosive 67-yard burst up the middle as he ran past the Vandy defense for the first score of the day, putting Auburn up 7-0. Hunter’s touchdown was Auburn’s longest play from scrim-mage this season.
After three straight three-and-outs between the two teams, Auburn had the ball second and one from its own 44-yard line when lightning struck a second time in the form of another explosive play in the running game. Once again, Hunter took the handoff, crashed through the line, and emerged unscathed as he scampered 56 yards for his second touchdown of the day. The Tigers lead 14-0.
Hunter would finish the first quarter with 121 yards on four carries and two touch-downs. His 121 yards rushing in the first quarter are the most by an Auburn running back since Tre Mason had 141 yards on six carries in the first quarter against Alabama A&M in 2012. The last Auburn player to rush for 100 yards in the first half was Tank Bigsby (106) vs. Arkansas in 2020. The previous top rushing mark in the first quarter against an SEC opponent was Casinious Moore (104) vs. Mississippi State in 2001.
After yet another three-and-out by the Vandy offense on the following possession, Au-burn was held to a three-and-out of its own. Following an Oscar Chapman punt, the Vandy return man muffed the catch, and Auburn fell on it for what seemed to be the game’s first turnover, giving the Tigers excellent field position at the Commodore 21-yard line. Instead of Auburn being on the cusp of taking a commanding three-touchdown lead, a penalty for kick-catch interference was called on the Tigers, giving the Commodores the ball. Though Auburn would eventually force a punt, the Vanderbilt punter, Matt Hayball, would pin the Tigers at its own 2-yard line.
Facing third down and seven at its own five, Thorne made an ill-advised pass to Rivaldo Fairweather. Vanderbilt’s Bryce Cowan stepped in front of the Tiger tight end, grabbing the Thorne pass and taking it to the end zone, bringing the SEC bottom dwellers to within a touchdown, making the score 14-7.
“I saw Rivaldo out there, and I thought he was wide open,” said Thorne. “I didn’t rifle it in there because I thought he was wide open. So, I looked out there and thought he’s going to catch it and get a first down. And until the ball got to him, I was great, and then the dude came out of nowhere, and it caught me off guard.”
The teams traded punts on the following four possessions. Then, on its final drive of the first half, Auburn faced first and goal from the Vanderbilt three-yard line. Hunter punched it in on the direct snap, but a penalty for a low block negated the score and pushed the Tigers back to the 18-yard line, which led to an Alex McPherson field goal and a 17-7 lead at halftime.
As it did on its first drive of the game, the Tiger offense struck from deep on its first drive of the second half. Facing a first down and ten from its own 47-yard line, Thorne found Fairweather for a 53-yard catch and run to extend the Tiger lead to 24-7. That was the Tigers’ third 50+ yard touchdown of the game. The last time Auburn had three offensive scoring plays of 50 yards or longer was the 2018 Music City Bowl against Purdue.
After yet another three-and-out by the Commodores, Auburn made quick work of mov-ing the ball to the Vandy five-yard line. From there, Jeremiah Cobb would take the quick pop pass on the jet sweep around left end for a touchdown, putting the Tigers up 31-7.
The teams traded punts before Vandy put together a scoring drive. The Commodore of-fense moved 44 yards in four plays as quarterback Ken Seals found Junior Sherrill across the middle for 30 yards. Sherrill completed the Octopus by scoring the two-point conversion, making the score 31-15.
Auburn would end the final two Vanderbilt drives of the game on fourth down stops — the last one owed to a Nehemiah Pritchett interception — to secure the sixteen-point victory. The Pritchett interception would extend the Tigers’ turnover streak to 18 games.
Hunter would finish with a career-best 183 yards on the ground, giving him 327 yards in the last two games. Both Hunter and Freeze credited the running back’s patience for his recent success.
“I was just trying to be in a hurry too much instead of being patient,” said Hunter. “And being more patient helped me a lot during the season.”
“That’s as patient as I’ve seen him on inside zone,” said Freeze about Hunter’s big numbers. “I do think that’s why he’s having more explosive runs the last few weeks. It took him a while, now. I remember (at) California, this guy was wide open, and nothing was developing in front of him. He’s being real patient right now.”
Next Up: at Arkansas. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. on the SEC Network.