After every Auburn game this season, we’ll take a look at three trends going up and three trends going down for the Tigers. On Saturday, the Tigers opened the season with a 31-24 victory over Washington State, a game that featured plenty of highs but also some lows.
1. The running backs: Nick Marshall didn’t blow anybody away in his debut at quarterback, but fortunately for Auburn, he didn’t have to. The trio of running backs carried the Tigers’ offense throughout most of the game and made big plays when they needed to. Tre Mason was solid with 15 carries for 73 yards, not to mention his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne was the bruiser of the group, but he also looked nimble for his size. He finished with 52 yards rushing. And the breakout star was Corey Grant, who led the team with 146 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. All three look like they’re going to play a major roles.
2. Special teams: It’s often overlooked, but Auburn’s play on special teams was a big reason why they won. The highlight came on Mason’s kickoff return, but both kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clarke earned their All-SEC nominations with Saturday’s performance. Parkey missed a 50-yard field goal early in the game, but he drilled his last three attempts, which turned out to be the difference in the final score. Meanwhile, Clarke punted the ball five times for an average of 41.6 yards and put three of his kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard kube. Chris Davis looked impressive on his lone punt return, picking up 19 yards.
3. The newcomers: Head coach Gus Malzahn said he expected the majority of the 2013 recruiting class to play against Washington State, and while that might have been a little generous, the newcomers still made their presence felt, in particular on defense. When defensive tackle Montravius Adams came into the game, he made a sack on his first play. It energized the crowd as well as his teammates. Both Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson made appearances at defensive end, and juco tackle Ben Bradley also made a key sack for a loss of eight yards.
1. The secondary: Auburn made three interceptions Saturday, one more than all of last season, but they surrendered 344 yards passing to Washington State. Granted, they won’t have to face many offenses similar to Mike Leach’s air-raid attack, but the unit still showed glimpses of last season. There were breakdowns in coverage, including one that resulted in a 53-yard reception and ultimately led to a touchdown, and too many receivers were wide open. However, it’s not all on the defensive backs. Part of the blame falls on the front seven and their ability to generate a pass rush, which looked nonexistent at times in the first half.
2. Nick Marshall’s first half: The expectations were set very high, maybe too high, for Marshall coming into the season. It was obvious he wanted to show off his arm strength and make a play early in the game. Instead, he just looked nervous and out of sync in the first half. On his first play from scrimmage, he was indecisive and took a four-yard loss when he was tackled in the backfield. He was just 2 of 8 passing for 20 yards in the first half. The good news is that Marshall settled in during the second half and looked much more comfortable. Still nobody knows what to expect from the new quarterback, but with the nerves of his first game behind him, he should only improve from here.
3. Late turnover: For three quarters, the Tigers didn’t turn the ball over once. Say what you will about Marshall, but he protected the football. However, after an interception by Robenson Therezie that looked to seal the victory, Mason coughed the ball up while going for extra yardage. The defense came up with another key stop, but the game could have just as easily gone to overtime. Malzahn showed his trust in Mason by giving him the ball on the next drive, but Auburn has to avoid turnovers, especially late in games.