AUBURN — Daniel Thomas caught Justin Herbert’s desperation heave out of the back of the end zone and sprinted back toward the Auburn sideline, arms out stretched.
Bo Nix embraced teammate after teammate on the field. Seth Williams gestured for the orange-clad fans who made the trip to Arlington, Texas, to make more noise.
Gus Malzahn, on the field speaking to ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor, said, “You know, we didn’t play our best.”
That was the head coach’s message to his team when it returned to the practice field and meetings Sunday. No. 16 Auburn’s come-from-behind, 27-21 victory over No. 13 Oregon is a heck of a way to start the season, but it was by no means perfect.
That’s the good thing about playing a team of the Ducks’ caliber to open the season rather than a Tulane or Kent State like the Tigers will host the next two weeks, Malzahn said: “A lot of times, you a play a team that’s lesser talent, and you really don’t know the true things you need to get better and focus on until you play a stronger opponent. So I think that’s the really good thing for us, that we know exactly what we need to improve on now.”
Some of that started during the game Saturday. The defense settled in masterfully after surrendering two touchdowns in its first three drives. The offensive line found its rhythm in the second half, when the Tigers totaled 126 rushing yards compared to just 70 in the first. Nix responded to two first-half interceptions with two second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner to Williams with 9 seconds remaining.
But there is more to do this week. Here are three specific areas Malzahn pointed to on Sunday:
1) Offensive play-calling
This is all on the head coach this season, and he gave himself an honest assessment after the game: He had fun doing it again for just the second time since early in the 2016 season, and there were some good moments, but there “were some bad play calls out there” that he would like back, too.
The series Malzahn mentioned specifically was the one after defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant returned a Herbert fumble 83 yards to set Auburn up first-and-goal from the 3-yard line trailing 14-3 with 6:15 left in the second quarter. Rather than try to run the ball up the middle on that first play, the Tigers ran a play-action fake for running back Shaun Shivers and had Nix throw a shovel pass to wide receiver Eli Stove, who was dropped for a loss.
Nix fumbled the snap on second down and threw incomplete on a broken third-down play, forcing Auburn to settle for a field goal.
“That was just a bad play call. We need to go downhill more than that,” Malzahn said. “You learn your team, you learn your quarterback and everything that goes with that in a game like that.”
There were positives, though. Malzahn made adjustments that paid dividends in the second half, specifically listening to the offensive line when it told him at halftime, “Coach, let’s run the football. Let’s try to run over them.” Auburn’s running backs went from carrying 11 times for 36 yards in the first half to 21 for 87 in the second.
Then there was the final play call, Bo-to-Seth. Malzahn said he and Nix had talked a couple of series earlier about putting Williams on the wide side of the field, and if he was single-covered, throwing the ball short to him and letting him make a play in the air. That’s exactly what the offense tried despite already being in field goal range with only 16 seconds left to play and no timeouts, sending Williams and Sal Cannella deep and having Stove and John Samuel Shenker run short out routes.
“When I saw his eyes go to the field, I know exactly what he was thinking,” Malzahn said of Nix. “He could have gone to the boundary if he wanted to and get into field-goal range, maybe 5 or 6 more yards with that. He made the play and Seth made the play and the rest is history.”
One of the biggest unanswered questions was why Auburn did not go for a 2-point conversion after Williams scored the go-ahead touchdown. Anders Carlson’s extra point made it just a six-point game, which meant Oregon could have gone back ahead on an extra point if it managed to pull off a Hail Mary.
Obviously, that proved a moot point — Herbert’s final throw sailed well out of the back of the end zone — but Malzahn did say that questioning the decision was a “good point.”
What happened, he explained, was that the aftermath of that play was “hysteria.” Williams was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Malzahn was worried Auburn might get assessed another because the team’s celebration had spilled off the sideline. The Tigers didn’t have a timeout remaining to get things settled, so the kicking unit ended up on the field.
That penalty could have proved costly, too — Carlson ended up kicking off from the 20 rather than the 35, which meant Oregon got to run its final play from the Auburn 36-yard line after a 33-yard Daewood Davis return, rather than somewhere on the far side of midfield.
Auburn finished the game with seven penalties for 60 total yards, adding three false starts, a delay of game, an illegal block and a facemask to the unsportsmanlike contact.
When it came to returning punts, sophomore defensive back Christian Tutt was electric. He averaged 12.8 yards on five attempts with a long of 41. He was awarded the team’s special teams helmet sticker (Stove earned the offensive one, and safety Jeremiah Dinson the defensive one).
Where the Tigers struggled, though, was stopping Oregon on special teams. Second-year punter Arryn Siposs averaged 45 yards on six punts, sending two inside the 20. Jevon Holland returned three of those for an average of 43.7 yards, including a long of 81 to the Auburn 9-yard line, which might have led to points had Herbert not fumbled the snap on the first play of the ensuing drive.
That’s somewhat surprising, as Auburn made massive improvements on special teams last season and finished as one of the best in the country at covering punts, ranking ninth nationally allowing just 3.4 yards per return.