Report card: Auburn defense virtually perfect, offense shows room for improvement in Week 1

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AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football opened a crucial 2017 season with some new faces Saturday night against Georgia Southern. But the result wouldn’t have been out of place with the old ones from 2016.

The No. 12 Tigers had no real trouble against the visiting Eagles in a 41-7 victory. Auburn’s defense pitched a truly historic shutout, as Georgia Southern’s touchdown came when it was standing on the sidelines. It was a super-charged version of what Kevin Steele’s unit showed in 2016.

However, the Jarrett Stidham-led offense didn’t answer too many questions for Auburn  coach Gus Malzahn and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Auburn ran the ball without much resistance yet again, but passing plays didn’t show enough of the improvement that was teased all offseason.

MORE: Jarrett Stidham shows some rust in up-and-down Auburn football debut

That brings us to the Sunday morning report card here at SEC Country. For new readers, here’s the rubric — A-plus is an all-time great performance, C is average, and F is an absolute failure.

Here’s how each unit shook out in the instant analysis:

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Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham never looked completely settled in his first start Saturday. (Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics)

Quarterback: C

It was a middle-of-the-road debut for Jarrett Stidham, who said he “did some good things, did some bad things” in the blowout victory. Stidham’s 14-for-24 passing performance with 3 total touchdowns and 1 interception was about as average as possible.

First, the positives: Stidham showed good mobility in the pocket, extending plays and even scoring a touchdown on the ground in the first half. He had one truly awful throw all night, a forced pass over the middle that was picked off.

The negatives, though, were obvious early. Stidham held on to the ball too long — sometimes because his receivers weren’t getting open, other times because of nervousness in the pocket. Some miscommunications turned into a few bad misfires. The rust was obvious in Week 1, and Stidham knows he has a lot of improving to do before heading to Clemson in six days.

Running backs: A

Auburn was handicapped with the suspension of top rusher Kamryn Pettway. However, Kerryon Johnson was off to the races early as the starter, breaking a 60-yard touchdown run on a beautiful buck sweep in the first quarter. Johnson was on pace for a career game before injuring his hamstring in the second quarter.

That put a damper on a strong rushing night for Auburn, which came up with 351 yards on 53 carries — an average of more than 6 yards per touch. Kam Martin, who overcame great personal tragedy during the week, had his best performance against an FBS opponent by matching Johnson’s 136 yards on just 14 carries.

Devan Barrett and Malik Miller also averaged 5 yards per carry in their limited work. Outside of a Martin fumble that was recovered by Auburn, there weren’t many negatives to bring up about the Tigers’ deep backfield.

Wide receivers: C-plus

Auburn’s outside receivers had a mostly forgettable game with Stidham. Both touchdowns and almost half the 183 receiving yards came from slot receivers Will Hastings and Ryan Davis. The two smaller playmakers had great success on crossing routes and set the tone for what could be big seasons in Chip Lindsey’s scheme.

Auburn struggled to get consistent separation on the outside against Georgia Southern’s defensive backs. While the Eagles had a veteran secondary, that doesn’t spell good news for Auburn next week because defending national champion Clemson also returns some solid playmakers in the back end.

The Tigers suffered a few drops and a couple of 50-50 balls they couldn’t come down with during the contest. Darius Slayton had his highs and lows, with the worst coming on a fumble after getting enough to gain a first down. Auburn wasn’t aggressive in calling pass plays, as expected, but the receivers must have left this contest wanting more.

Offensive line: C-minus

In terms of run blocking, Auburn’s offensive line did what it does best — mash smaller opponents in the trenches. The Tigers were able to excel in the running game behind a retooled front five that returned only two starters in the same positions.

However, the pass protection left much to be desired. Georgia Southern, which had a nearly rebuilt defensive front from last season, had three sacks and eight tackles for loss. A couple of those tackles for loss came when Stidham had to tuck and go because the pocket was collapsing. The lowest point came on Georgia Southern’s lone touchdown, when a blindside sack turned into an easy scoop-and-score.

It’s obvious Auburn still needs time to gel up front with new starters Prince Tega Wanogho and Mike Horton, along with Darius James at a new position of right tackle. If Auburn is going to take the next step offensively with its passing game, the line must improve.

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Auburn’s defensive line was dominant against Georgia Southern. (Sarah Lundgren/SEC Country)

Defensive line: A-plus

Georgia Southern finished with 78 total yards, the second-fewest ever allowed by Auburn’s defense. A lot of it had to do with a nearly flawless performance up front. The Eagles had only 8 yards passing, as they barely had any time to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand thanks to the 5 sacks.

The pressure was relentless, and it came from all waves of the defensive line rotation. Five linemen recorded tackles for loss. Marlon Davidson, who wasn’t expected to start, came up with two sacks. Jeff Holland, performing well in his first start in place of Carl Lawson, had 2 tackles for loss. Derrick Brown led all linemen with 6 tackles, 1.5 for a loss.

The Tigers had a couple of penalties on the defensive front, but they were insignificant. Georgia Southern didn’t score an offensive point and averaged 1.4 yards per play, and that started with this dominant unit.

Linebackers: A

So much of slowing down a successful triple-option offense comes down to the linebackers. The Tigers preached “eye discipline” all week long, and it paid off Saturday night.

Tre’ Williams led all players with 10 tackles, including 2 sacks. While no other linebacker had a standout performance statistically — and there were a few misses on Georgia Southern’s only sustained drives of the game — this unit came through with repeated three-and-outs.

While Auburn started Montavious Atkinson in a surprise move, there was zero drop-off on defense. The linebackers stayed fresh and picked up where they left off from their resurgent 2016 campaign.

Defensive backs: A-plus

Georgia Southern wasn’t going to test the secondary too much, but Auburn made sure it got nothing when it did. With 4 completions for 9 yards and a Hail Mary interception from Daniel Thomas, the pass defense did a great job without fear of “falling asleep” due to inactivity.

Run support made the difference Saturday night. Time after time, defensive backs came up into the box to make plays. Free safety Stephen Roberts flew behind the line of scrimmage for a pair of tackles for loss, and Jeremiah Dinson came in to clean up an Eagles attempt with defensive tackle Derrick Brown.

Auburn rotated a good amount of bodies into the secondary against Georgia Southern, and it didn’t change the defense one bit. That sets the tone for a much tougher matchup at Clemson next Saturday.

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Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson had his worst day on field goals since his freshman season.
(Sarah Lundgren/SEC Country)

Special teams: B-minus

It turns out senior Daniel Carlson is human after all. The senior kicker didn’t get his final campaign off to a strong start against Georgia Southern. After drilling a 50-yarder, he missed from 53 and 46 yards. He did make a 37-yarder late in the third quarter.

Carlson’s 2-for-4 day marked the second time he’s missed two field goals, with the other coming in an overtime Outback Bowl loss to end his freshman season.

Other than those uncharacteristic misses from Carlson, Auburn’s special teams had a solid night. Ian Shannon hit his lone punt of the game for more than 40 yards. Javaris Davis had a good kick return in his only opportunity, and Stephen Roberts made a couple potential tacklers miss on a punt return.

Coaching: B

There’s not too much to poke at when it comes to coaching a 41-7 win. Auburn didn’t come out with guns blazing offensively, but that was to be expected with Clemson coming up in Week 2. Some strategic decisions, such as the wildcat formation and the botched sugar huddle snap on the opening drive, were peculiar at best.

Auburn’s coaching staff had its defense ready to dominate Georgia Southern’s offense. The triple option is notoriously tricky for some big-time programs, but Auburn snuffed it out in one of the best performances in school history.

Malzahn will undoubtedly take some heat from fans about how the suspension news was handled this week. But when it comes to what happened on the field against Georgia Southern, this was a solid win for Malzahn. Still, it’s one that should give the Tigers a lot to work on before heading to Death Valley.

The post Report card: Auburn defense virtually perfect, offense shows room for improvement in Week 1 appeared first on SEC Country.

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