Tigers Dump the Wildcats! (Grading Auburn’s 29-13 win over Kentucky.)

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Tigers Dump the Wildcats! (Grading Auburn’s 29-13 win over Kentucky.)

Seth Williams snatches in a touchdown!
(AP Photo by Butch Dill)

     War Eagle everybody! It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s season opening 29-13 win over the number 17 Kentucky Wildcats. Featuring veteran lines on both sides of the ball, Kentucky took the ball right at the Auburn Tigers, and took their first drive right down the field for a score. What was most galling was that Auburn gave up a 35 yard touchdown run to Kavosiey Smoke where no linebacker, safety or cornerback even lined up on that side of the field. Was a comedy of errors to ensue from the Tigers? Thankfully, not so much.

     Auburn was able to answer the Kentucky drive by mixing the run and the pass, capping off the drive with a short touchdown run by DJ Williams. Auburn brought out an old staple from earlier in the Gus Malzahn era, the Batman play. A swinging gate sort of thing, most of the team lined up way over on the left, while the center and a couple of players lined up on the right. Kentucky left a numbers disadvantage on the right, so transfer quarterback Grant Loy was the batman, took the snap and quickly flipped a two-point conversion to John Samuel Schenker, and Auburn had an 8-7 lead, and would not relinquish the lead again all day.

     Both teams bogged down a bit after initial touchdowns. Auburn drove deep into Wildcat territory, only to lose the ball on downs. Kentucky drove deep right before the half, before two of the worst referee calls of the day, upheld by replay. First, Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson powered forward on a keeper, ball cradled in his arms. He got BOTH feet on the goal line, AND was leaning forward with the ball. Somehow, the refs robbed Kentucky of the touchdown, and spotted the ball at the half yard line.

     Then, Kentucky got a little too cute. They tried a rollout pass, Wilson tried to throw off his back foot across his body, and jam the ball into traffic. Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary snagged the errant pass at the goal line, and set sail down the sideline. Behind the play, Auburn end Derrick Hall cut off an pursuer, slicing him into the sideline. Hall did not lead with the helmet. He did not hit the pursuer from behind. He did not launch himself. In no way was a pursuer trying to make a tackle a “defenseless player.” The players’ helmets did lightly contact, but it was after shoulders and arms hit. Somehow, Hall was called for targeting, wiping out the Auburn touchdown. Folks, if the refs are going to call targeting every time two helmets touch, we might as well change the rules to “flag football.” In the end, the refs took a touchdown away from each team through incompetence.

     Auburn gave up a chunk of rushing yards in the first half, but slammed the door in the 3rd quarter. The Auburn defense held Kentucky to back to back three-and-outs, and gave the Tiger offense some breathing room. Auburn answered with a long drive, but seemed to have stalled. On 3rd and goal from the 11, pressure came at Bo Nix. He sailed a pass off his back foot, and Seth Williams went up and got it for a touchdown.

     Kentucky answered. Finding open receivers, Terry Wilson moved the wildcats to an answering touchdown. Kentucky went for 2 on a quarterback rollout, and inexplicably, Wilson threw the ball away into the stands. Auburn held a 15-13 lead.

     The rest of the game was a serious Kentucky meltdown, losing a couple of fumbles. Auburn’s defensive line really began to assert itself, and the Wildcat attack collapsed. Bo Nix threw for two more touchdowns, resulting in the final margin.

     Defensively, Auburn looked rusty early, and Kentucky gave Auburn some formations that they had not seen on film. As the game wore on, the Auburn defensive line and front seven really asserted itself, winning the matchup against Kentucky’s veteran line and backs. The Tigers still have some issues to work out in the secondary, and I’m certainly glad Auburn was not facing one of the great SEC passers this week.

     Offensively, the run game was ineffective, except for a few quarterback scrambles and pitch plays. A rotating cast of offensive linemen did not help. Reportedly, Auburn did not have the whole contingent together on the line for much of fall camp. Bo Nix missed a few throws in the first half, but was under pressure. He made some great throws later, and did a good job of taking care of the ball. One complaint on the day was that according to pundits, we were supposed to see a lot more passes to backs and tight ends. Auburn attempted 2 passes to tight end John Samuel Schenker, and none to the running backs on the day.

     Auburn had a solid, if unspectacular day on special teams. Coverage was respectable, and returns were good. Kentucky probably could be said to have won the special teams battle with great punting from Max Duffy, but the failed fake punt really allowed Auburn to take control of the ballgame.

Unit grades after the jump!

Defensive Line: B. This unit held its own against a good offensive line. There were a few gap control errors, but little else to complain about. Considering that preseason star Big Kat Bryant was held out of the first half, and his backup Derrick Hall got ejected, adjustments were made and this unit was led off the bench by DaQuan Newkirk with 6 total tackles, and 2 for a loss, which also led the team. As a unit, the line produced 19 total tackles, 3 for a loss, and a sack.

Linebackers: B. I thought a number of run fits were poor early on, but this unit seriously tightened up as the game went on. KJ Britt led the team with 11 total tackles, and the unit combined for 28 tackles.

Secondary: C+. Too many times, an underneath receiver was left wide open, either because no one covered him, or let him go to the next level with no help over top. Considering that this unit fielded 4 new starters, it wasn’t a bad outing. The unit totaled 29 tackles.

Punting: B. Three different Auburn players punted on the day, Aiden Marshall, Oscar Chapman and Bo Nix. Both of the Nix punts were quick-kicks that pinned the Wildcats deep. Chapman averaged 43 yards per punt, and Marshall’s lone punt went 42 yards. Placement was good, as Kentucky was only able to return 1 punt for 6 yards.

Punt Returns: I. Kentucky punted 4 times for a 53 yard average, and veteran Auburn punt returner Christian Tutt was not able to field a single one of them. Kentucky punter Max Duffy is really good.

Kick Returns: B+. Kentucky kicked off 3 times, and Auburn returned 2 of them for a 32 yard average. Blocking was pretty good, and both Shaun Shivers and Tank Bigsby were able to make tacklers miss.

Place Kicking: B-. Anders Carlson made all 3 of his extra point attempts. On kickoffs, Carlson hit touchbacks on 2 of 5 kickoffs, well below his average. Worse, Kentucky averaged 24 yards per kick return. I’d like to see 20 or less yards per return, or better yet, go back to the days where most kickoffs sailed out of the end zone.

Offensive Line: B-. This was really not a bad day, all things considered. Better, Auburn was able to rotate some players in and not lose continuity. Despite 4 new starters on the line, Auburn only gave up 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and 4 quarterback hurries. Although Auburn netted only 91 rushing yards, I attribute that to Auburn stubbornly running into stacked Kentucky fronts with 4 receivers split out wide.

Running Backs: B-. The longest running back gain of the day was 11 yards on a twisting run by Shaun Shivers, and no other carries went for double digit yards. See my complaint about formations without lead blocking, above. One big plus is that none of the 3 backs that carried the ball put it on the ground. No fumbles in a game always gives one a chance!

Receivers: A-. I counted off for a couple of drops, and a couple of times two receivers were in the same area downfield, which shouldn’t happen. However, I was really impressed with receiver blocking. For the most part when Auburn threw those quick screens to the sideline, the lead receiver locked someone up. Seth Williams was fearsome with his hands and leaping ability. Eli Stove and Anthony Schwartz made plays with the ball when given a chance as well.

Quarterback: A-. I would say that Nix missed a couple of open receivers early, but really threw well after that. Operating behind a rebuilt line, Nix had a good day. Nix averaged a solid 8.6 yards per pass at a 59 percent completion rate, and added 34 yards rushing on 5 carries to lead all Tiger rushers. Nix also threw 3 touchdown passes against zero interceptions. Operating behind a rebuilt, rotating offensive line, I’d say Nix had a very good day. I also really enjoyed watching backup quarterback Grant Loy in the Batman/extra point role. I hope we see more of that going forward.

     Auburn won this game by making fewer mistakes than Kentucky did. Considering the slop I’ve seen in numerous other games this fall, I really have to hand it to the Auburn players and staff on their preparation. Likewise, I think the team’s handling of the pandemic has been exemplary, as well. We’ve seen teams very shorthanded, or games canceled altogether due to this awful virus. For Auburn to have everyone available for this game was amazing.

     Another shout-out has to go to the folks in the stands. Comprised of mostly students, the quarter-capacity stadium was surprisingly noisy when Kentucky had the ball. I liked the plan of spreading everyone out in the stadium, and kudos to the vast majority of folks that avoided clumping up in groups.

     The difficulty ratchets up next week, as Auburn travels to Athens, Georgia. The defending Eastern Division champion Bulldogs had offensive troubles last week, but they totally throttled the Arkansas Razorback offense yesterday. Auburn will have to be more diverse next week to move the ball. On defense, Auburn will have to stop the run better, and force Georgia to try to move the ball with inexperienced quarterbacks. Fortunately, teams typically show the most improvement between games one and two, as seasons progress. We can hope Auburn moves forward to victory next weekend. It would be the first victory in Athens since 2005.

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