BY RYAN BLACK | email@example.com
AUBURN, Ala. — Some good things happened for Auburn on Saturday night.
Some not-so-good instances occurred, too.
Irrespective of the final stats or big plays they produced or allowed, the Tigers accomplished their sole objective against Washington State: They won, beating the Cougars 31-24 in the season opener. It was far from easy, though, as the game’s fate hung in the balance deep into the fourth quarter. Auburn was finally able to breath easy when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday misfired on a fourth-and-five attempt from the Tigers’ 27-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, as his pass wasn’t close to any receiver.
Tre Mason took care of the rest. He picked up a pair of first downs to help the Tigers set up a “victory formation” and give head coach Gus Malzahn a win in his first game on the Plains.
So, in the aftermath of Saturday night, we’ll head to the report card.
This will be done every Sunday following Auburn’s game the previous day. You might not agree with the grades, but the comments section is there for a reason.
For those paying close attention, this is the same grade Nick Marshall gave when asked to take stock of his performance on Saturday. First, the good news: The Tigers did as everyone expected, staying committed to the ground game, totaling 297 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Auburn spread the wealth, as four different players — Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne, Mason and Marshall — touched the ball at least nine times. We all knew how deep the backfield was heading into the game, and Saturday provided on-field proof of those preconceived notions.
Now, the bad news. Those who watched the game saw this coming from a mile away, and that is … (Hold on a second. Marshall just overthrew another receiver before I could finish the last sentence.) Joking aside, Auburn’s signal-caller had a solid game, at least in the realm of his decision-making and not turning the ball over. That being said, Marshall had the potential to put together an even better game through the air if he just reined himself in a bit. He overthrew countless open receivers, including three great opportunities to score on the same drive late in the third quarter. The Tigers eventually ended up punting the ball away.
On Saturday, Marshall’s misfires didn’t sink the Tigers’ hopes at victory.
It might not come back to haunt them next week against Arkansas State, either. But the Tigers can’t afford to be one-dimensional when they get into the heart of their SEC schedule and reasonably expect to win.
Yes, the Tigers allowed 464 yards of total offense. And yes, 344 of those yards came through the air. However, they also intercepted the ball three times — one more than they had all of last season — and gave up only one passing touchdown. The reason for this grade, then, is that even though it took the Cougars 35 completions to rack up those 344 yards, they still averaged nearly a first down per completed pass, at 9.8 yards per catch.
Auburn also gave up far more on the ground than anyone would have expected; Washington State averaged right at 29 rushing yards per game last season, the lowest in Division I. Saturday night, the Cougars had nearly 100 yards more than that, finishing with 120. And after scoring only six rushing touchdowns in 12 games last year, Washington State had two against Auburn, matching the Tigers’ own total.
Finally, if not for true freshman Montravius Adams playing well beyond his years, Auburn’s push up front would have been non-existent. Time and again, Halliday was allowed ample time to look downfield and hit open receivers. If the Tigers’ pass-rush doesn’t improve dramatically in the weeks to come, they likely won’t be able to escape with a victory like they did on Saturday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
There is no need for nitpicking here, especially given everything the Tigers did right. To wit: They scored on a 100-yard kickoff return by Mason. Cody Parkey had five touchbacks, with only one returned kick, which was taken back 30 yards. The senior place kicker also went 3-for-4 on his field goal attempts, only missing from 50 yards out. The Tigers also didn’t have a punt return against them. Needless to say, no unit was more stout than special teams Saturday night.
There were some tense moments, but those are to be expected. As defensive line coach Rodney Garner would say, football “is a bottom-line business.” The Tigers won Saturday night. Period.
Everything else is meaningless by comparison.