AUBURN — The numbers that stood out most at halftime of Saturday’s game at Jordan-Hare Stadium were 29 and 20.
The first is the number of passes true freshman quarterback Bo Nix attempted through the first two quarters. The second is the number of rushing yards Auburn had as a team during that same span.
Not attempts; yards. Only 20 of them, on 13 carries, which is an average of fewer than 2 yards per rush. JaTarvious Whitlow carried eight times for 8 yards, Kam Martin two for 5, wide receive Eli Stove two for 4 and Nix one for 3.
“That's unacceptable,” senior right tackle Jack Driscoll said.
Head coach Gus Malzahn concurred. And to the Tigers’ credit, their rushing totals rose exponentially in the second half. Take out a kneel down to end the game, and the home team carried 31 times for 153 yards over the third and fourth quarters of a 24-6 win over Tulane.
It’s similar to the way last week’s 27-21 victory over Oregon played out. No. 13 Auburn managed only 70 rushing yards on 17 carries in the first half of that game before breaking out for 136 yards on 26 carries in the second, which is how it was able to erase a 15-point third-quarter deficit with three unanswered touchdowns capped off by Nix’s 26-yard strike to Seth Williams with nine seconds remaining.
The fact that the Tigers have made those halftime adjustments in each of the past two weeks is a positive. The fact that they have had to make them in the first place, however, is not — especially with five returning senior starters on the offensive line.
“When we run the football, we're a pretty good offense. That's really got to be a focus moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We've just got to get more successful in the first half.”
The reasons why Auburn wasn’t Saturday, according to coach and players, are twofold. One, the Green Wave have a stout defensive front, just like Malzahn said they would. They start five upperclassmen in their front seven. They held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry last season and Florida International to just 2.3 in a win last week.
Two, a lot of those looks were heavy against the run. Tulane played with eight defenders in the box through much of the first half, often bringing down a safety or blitzing a corner to outnumber Auburn’s blockers. The idea, the Tigers determined, was to test Nix in just the second start of his career.
The true freshman responded well, at least for the most part. He completed only 15 of those 29 pass attempts, but he threw for 174 yards and didn’t turn the ball over. After Auburn went three-and-out on three of its first four possessions (which featured zero runs of more than 3 yards), Nix led back-to-back touchdown drives with his arm.
Nix completed 5 of 7 passes for 107 yards on those two drives. But while it did work for a brief stretch, it’s not the way the Tigers want to play on offense.
“They kind of just loaded the box and made it hard for us to find some gaps there in the first half,” Nix said. “But once we figured out what we could do to run the ball in the second half, it opened a lot of things up.”
Malzahn said he changed a few of the gap schemes at halftime, which helped that senior-laden offensive line get into a better rhythm. Auburn also pulled its guards, ran outside the tackles and direct-snapped the ball to Whitlow out of the Wildcat more than it did in the first half.
The benefits of those changes were evident on the Tigers’ second and third drives of the second half, when they went 82 yards in 11 plays to score a touchdown and 59 yards in 10 plays to kick a field goal, respectively. Auburn ran the ball on 15 of those 21 plays. Whitlow carried 12 times for 82 yards on his own, which included a 14-yard touchdown run around the right side out of a Wildcat formation.
Those two drives turned what was a 14-6 halftime lead into a commanding 18-point advantage early in the fourth quarter that all but iced the game. But they don’t absolve the rushing attack from what was overall not a strong performance. Auburn still averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Whitlow finished the game with 96 yards on 23 carries, and if he had 82 on 12 carries in those two drives, that means his other 11 carries went for only 14 yards.
Auburn’s sophomore lead back also fumbled three times and lost two — once on a fourth-and-1 carry in the first half, once at the goal line on the play before Stove’s 4-yard rushing touchdown (left guard Marquel Harrell recovered that one), and once deep in Auburn’s own territory in the fourth quarter, setting Tulane up at the 30.
“That's something that he knows that we gotta improve,” Malzahn said. “It can't happen.”
The reason Whitlow continued to receive the bulk of the rushing opportunities despite those miscues is that the Tigers still haven’t settled on a second running back they trust. The coaching staff touted depth when they listed six players as “co-starters” at the position on the team’s official depth chart, but through two games, Whitlow has more than double the amount of carries as the rest of the team’s running backs combined — he has 47, Martin has 14, Shaun Shivers seven, and Malik Miller, Harold Joiner and D.J. Williams none.
Of those players, the true freshman Williams might be the best suited to be a true three-down back capable of spelling Whitlow. But he didn't play Saturday after suffering an injury during Tuesday’s practice that Malzahn said, “wouldn’t allow him to do much.” The hope is that he’ll be ready to play next week against Kent State.