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Auburn Looks to Clean Up Mistakes as they Prep for SEC Gauntlet

Auburn defenders Roger McCreary and K.J. Britt tackle Mike Carrigan for a short gain in the second half.
Auburn Football homecoming vs Kent State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn defenders Roger McCreary and K.J. Britt tackle Mike Carrigan for a short gain in the second half. Auburn Football homecoming vs Kent State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Auburn, Ala.

"Each week in all three phases, the goal is to improve, and I really do think we have a mature enough team to get that done," said Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn. With their daunting SEC schedule beginning this week, Auburn’s Homecoming matchup with the Kent State Golden Flashes was an opportunity to do just that.. While the Tigers were 2-0, with a big wins over the 11th ranked Oregon Ducks and good Group of 5 team Tulane, they had their fair share of struggles. 

One particular area that many thought would be a strength for the Tigers this season was kick and punt return defense. Last season, Auburn was 39th in kick return defense and ninth in punt return defense, and with kicker Anders Carlson and punter Arryn Siposs both returning, the unit was expected to be one of the best in the country. Through the first two games however, it was quite the opposite. The punting unit was ranked 130th out of 130 teams in yards allowed with 35.8 per return. The kicking unit did not fare much better as they allowed 28.5 yards per return which was 118th in the nation; however, with Anders Carlson, who finished with a touchback percentage of 73% last season, handling kickoffs the area is not quite as concerning.  

Slow starts had also been one of the bigger problems for Auburn this season on both sides of the ball. Opposing offenses had success early against the vaunted Auburn defense with Tulane scoring on their opening possession and Oregon reaching the end zone twice while gaining over 190 yards of offense in the first quarter of the season opener. Following adjustments made by fourth year coordinator Kevin Steele, the defense has proven to be as advertised holding Oregon and Tulane to a combined 10 points and 233 total yards in the remaining six quarters. The defense’s ability to adjust so quickly has been invaluable and both of Auburn’s victories this year and will certainly be crucial in their SEC opener in College Station. 

The offense had similar struggles in the first half, particularly running the football. While the rushing attack was ranked 51st in the nation for yards per game, the talented  backs have struggled to find any running lanes or rhythm in the first half. The Tigers totaled just 90 yards combined in the first 2 quarters of each game compared to 288 combined after halftime. Once again the coaching staff did a great job adjusting and reacting to the opposing defenses at halftime; however, the tigers can ill-afford such slow starts as the year progresses, especially when they have three of the top four teams in the nation on their schedule. 

One of the bigger reasons that the offense has struggled early on is the offensive line.  The line had its fair share of problems a year ago. Despite being top 40 in both sacks and tackles for loss allowed, Auburn had three straight games of under 100 yards rushing and four overall. The last time an Auburn offense had a streak like that was 1999, when the team failed to combine for 100 rushing yards in 10 out of the 11 total games. With all five starters returning for the 2019 season, the unit was one of the most talked about during the offseason. They seemed set up for a big improvement and many fans thought as much; however, they have started the season off like last season. The line had struggled to get much push up front, leading to a lot of negative plays or ones that result in no gain. Through two games, they allowed 12 tackles for loss already which is 70th in the nation. 

The main back running behind this line, JaTarvious ‘Boobie’ Whitlow, came into the year expected to be the premiere back in an offense that would lean on the run game as they eased the freshman quarterback Bo Nix into the offense. Whitlow proved he could be just that during the second half of the season opener as he allowed the offense to rely on him while Nix attempted only 13 passes. Whitlow finished with 110 yards on 24 carries and seemed poised to be Auburn’s next 1,000 yard rusher. The Tulane game was unfortunately a step back for the electric Whitlow as he struggled early on and fumbled the ball three times, 

two of which were recovered by the Green Wave defense. While Auburn does have good depth at the position with Shaun Shivers and veteran Kam Martin, Whitlow is the true North-South runner that has defined the top offenses under Malzahn. Whitlow has only fumbled two other times during his career at Auburn, so while it is not the biggest concern heading into SEC play, it is still something running backs coach and former AU back Cadillac Williams will want to work on with Whitlow.

Speaking of Nix, the young quarterback was struggling to get in rhythm, partly because the opposing defenses have been able to generate constant pressure on the freshman. While they have only allowed one sack, which on the surface appears great, but like last season, the stat is not indicative of the pass blocking this season. The reason Auburn has had so few sacks allowed these past two years is the ability of their quarterbacks to get outside the pocket or throw it away. Another way to understand the ability of any line to pass protect is to look at the completion percentage of the quarterback. Following a great 2017 campaign, Jarret Stidham’s completion rate dropped nearly 6 percentage points in the 2018 season due to the ability of opposing defense to put pressure on the quarterback and force throwaways. 

Freshman quarterback Bo Nix had similar problems as well this season despite the offensive line only allowing one sack. Nix’s completion percentage stood at 47.1% which was good for 113th in the nation out of 120 eligible players. Such a low completion rate is due to Nix being under duress during the majority of his drop backs forcing him to make a quick throwaway or risk putting the offense behind the sticks often. Nix has shown immense promise when he has had time in the pocket to throw, and it is paramount that the offensive line can start giving him more time as the season progresses. In short: Auburn needs Whitlow and Nix at their best this season in order to contend in arguably the best division in college football, and the offensive line is gonna play a crucial role in their success.

The Tigers took advantage of their matchup against Kent State on Saturday, showing improvement in all areas, specifically the run game and return defense. The Tigers gained 464 total yards on the ground, including 3 players with over 100 yards, while allowing only 7 yards on one kick return. While many fans and players will agree that a home matchup with Kent State is nothing like a game against Texas A&M In College Station, Auburn can certainly build on the progress and momentum from it. The Tigers kickoff SEC play at 2:30 p.m. next Saturday.

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