Where do we go from here?

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Photo contributed by Todd VanEmst/AU Athletics

What to take away from Auburn’s loss to South Carolina

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com

South Carolina fans are happier with Will Muschamp as their head coach than Auburn fans are with Gus Malzahn as theirs. Not a single soul would have predicted this to be a reasonable statement after Muschamp’s ill-favored departure from Florida in 2014. Unless you’re one of those unbelieving, pessimistic Auburn fans (you know who you are), it had previously been undeniable that Gus Malzahn – given his numerous flaws – was better suited to run a program than Muschamp.

But, after Auburn’s 30-22 loss to South Carolina in Columbia on Saturday, the unbelieving, pessimistic Auburn fans are having their day (insert maniacal laugh). Auburn is now 2-2 and sitting outside of the top-25. Every game this season has felt like one step forward and two steps back for the Tigers. Okay, maybe the Georgia game was more like four steps back. But the point is, Auburn has yet to play well in all three facets of the game for the full 60 minutes. So, where do we go from here? Technically, it’s to Oxford to take on a struggling but dangerous Ole Miss team. But, before that, here’s a look at what we learned from Auburn’s loss against South Carolina on Saturday.

Let’s begin with some numbers. Because on its face, Auburn was the better team in Columbia. Auburn had more:

First downs (27 to 20)

Total yards (481 to 297)

and yards per carry (5.8 yards to 3.6).         

Where did it all go wrong you ask? The short answer is Bo Nix’s right arm. The better answer is mistakes and missed opportunities.

Auburn came out on fire, forcing two three-and-outs and taking an early 9-0 lead after two drives. After Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz were the only two receivers to catch a pass last week, Bo Nix decided that “everybody eats,” and hit seven different receivers in the first quarter. When Tank Bigsby ran wild against Arkansas, many expected Auburn to feed the freshman and lean on the run game more going forward. The offensive line played well again this week and it would have made a lot of sense to go run-heavy given Nix’s poor record in SEC road games.

That wasn’t the case. Don’t get it wrong, Bigbsy was stellar again – 16 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown –  but his performance called for even more touches to go his way. His 6.1 yards per carry average ranks No. 3 in the SEC and just above Alabama’s Najee Harris. Perhaps more impressive is, according to Sports Info Solutions, Bigsby has caused a nation-leading 9.5 missed tackles per 25 rush attempts.

Still, however, first-year Auburn offensive coordinator Chad Morris inexplicitly went away from the run, going full Mike Leach as he appeared dead-set on winning or losing the game on the arm of his quarterback. It worked well to start, and perhaps caught the Gamecocks off guard, but Nix’s 61 total drop backs were far too many. Morris and Nix have yet to truly mesh and the rate of trick-plays-used in this game was fun but unsettling to say the least. You can blame the game on the sophomore QB, fair. But the ball should have never been in his hands to begin with.

After outgaining South Carolina 144 to 21 in the first quarter, Auburn looked well on their way to victory. But three interceptions from Nix led to 21 Gamecock points and completely erased any momentum that Auburn had early on. What turned this game into a disaster were the three red zone field goals that Auburn settled for and the seven penalties for 69 yards in the second. Missed opportunities and mistakes. “Tank” Bigsby’s performance and nickname origin story – about how he purposely ran into walls – was just about the only good thing Auburn produced after the first 15 minutes. 

On the defensive side of the ball for Auburn, there isn’t much blame to give. They limited the Gamecock offense to 297 yards, but something still wasn’t clicking. Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are incredible linebackers but undersized. Pappoe got his first career interception and McClain led the team in tackles for the second straight week and had Auburn’s only sack. But depth is still an issue there and the first and third levels were nothing to write home about. Roger McCreary was called for two killer pass interference calls (mistakes) and while Big Kat Bryant’s name was mentioned more than any time this year, he still failed to register a sack. Some younger guys on the defense are stepping up, but with K.J. Britt out, it’s obvious Kevin Steele’s defense is severely lacking in leadership and playmaking.

So, here we are. Malzahn is back on the hot seat, Nix  looks like a nervy freshman again and the Tigers should really be 1-3. No time to waste; Joey Freshwater awaits on Saturday. It’s fun being an Auburn fan. Even for the unbelieving pessimists among us.

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