Perine, defense lift No. 10 Florida past No. 7 Auburn, 24-13

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (10) scrambles from the pocket as Florida linebacker David Reese II (33) and defensive lineman Marlon Dunlap Jr. (91) pressure during the first half Saturday. [JOHN RAOUX/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

AUBURN — The first play on Gus Malzahn’s offensive script Saturday at Florida was a screen pass.

Wide receiver Eli Stove ran a jet sweep motion from the left, running back JaTarvious Whitlow faked taking a handoff running right, and right guard Mike Horton pulled to the backside to block edge rusher Jonathan Greenard.

Only he never got there. Greenard blew straight past Horton and took a shot at Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, who managed to bury the ball in the turf just before he was leveled for a sack.

That set the tone for how things would go for the true freshman in a 24-13 loss to the Gators in Gainesville, Florida.

Nix followed up the best performance of his young career in last week’s home win over Mississippi State (16 of 21, 335 yards, two touchdowns) with arguably his worst, completing just 11 of 27 passes for 145 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in the loss to Florida.

The completion percentage is the lowest for an Auburn starting quarterback since Jarrett Stidham completed only 9 of 26 passes in a Oct. 14, 2017, loss at LSU, and the interception total the highest since Jeremy Johnson threw the same number in the 2015 season opener against Louisville.

The result was Nix’s first defeat as a starting quarterback since Aug. 25, 2018 — the first game of his senior year at Pinson Valley High. 

“I’m just disappointed that I didn’t play my role today and didn’t do what I needed to do to help them (his teammates) win a game,” Nix said Saturday. “I feel like I let them down in certain areas.”

It was the first time in his short career that he really looked like a true freshman.

Malzahn said the crowd noise played a part in that. The 90,584 fans who packed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium were loud when the game started and only grew louder when Auburn’s offense got off to a slow start. 

Nix said it was “the loudest I’ve heard,” which is almost certainly true. But Malzahn is in his 14th year in the college ranks, 11th in the SEC and 10th at Auburn, and even he said that he “would compare that with some of the top that we’ve faced,” right up there with Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if you had a fifth-year quarterback,” Malzahn said. “That’s a tough environment.”

Nix never looked quite comfortable playing in it. Not like he did at Jordan-Hare Stadium the week prior, when he had an adjusted completion percentage of 90 percent.

Seeing Florida blow up the offense’s first play from scrimmage — and seventh when Auburn ran an identical screen to start its third drive and suffered the same result — probably didn’t help. Neither did the offense’s second play: Whitlow’s 1-yard rush on a direct snap was not a planned play, but rather a bad snap that the running back managed to corral and turn into something positive.

The three interceptions stand out. Nix entered Saturday’s game having attempted 111 consecutive passes without throwing one, dating back to the first half of Auburn’s season-opening win against Oregon.

The first came after defensive tackle Derrick Brown picked up a Kyle Trask fumble forced by Marlon Davidson and rumbled inside the Florida 40 before tripping himself up. It was second-and-14 from the 39-yard line early in the second quarter. Sal Cannella faked like he was going to block on a screen pass, then broke free down the left sideline on a wheel route. Nix pumped once, then fired to him.

It looked as if Auburn hoped that Anthony Schwartz running a go route on the same side of the field would clear space for that throw to be completed, but safety Shawn Davis didn’t bite — he read Nix’s eyes, and when the throw went toward Cannella, he jumped the route and made a one-handed grab. Had Nix placed more air under the ball, the result might have been different.

The second was the back-breaker. Nix’s 46-yard completion over the top to wide receiver Seth Williams set Auburn up in the red zone trailing by only four late in the third quarter. The quarterback was again looking for Cannella on a deep post on third-and-12 from the 15-yard line, but he never saw safety Donovan Stiner sitting in front of the route.

“That one, I did force. It was just a bad read on my part,” Nix said. “The other was just an unfortunate play. Then there on two-minute, I just missed high (on a slant to Will Hastings over the middle). It wasn’t anything dramatic or anything based off scheme or anything. I just missed some bad plays and unfortunately made three of them.”

Nix did make some good plays Saturday. He threw a 32-yard strike to Williams for Auburn’s lone touchdown on the first play of a drive following Florida’s failed fake punt in the second quarter. 

But Nix also missed a lot of throws he should have made. On the first third down the Tigers faced in the game, his throw to Williams led the wide receiver out of bounds. That was the start of the offense going 2 for 14 on third downs and going three and out six times. Nix also threw behind Stove on a screen; wide of Schwartz and Williams on a pair of hitch routes down the sideline; behind Cannella on a crossing route; and over Hastings’ head on a seam route. Five of those six misses would have been first downs.

The most deflating miss outside of the interceptions might have been the one that came two plays after Nix’s 46-yard completion to Williams. It was second-and-7 from the Florida 10-yard line, Williams had position in front of his defender on a middle slant in the end zone, and the quarterback’s throw ended up low and behind the receiver. If that pass is on target, it’s the go-ahead touchdown.

The culprit on those misses was either footwork, which has hurt Nix’s accuracy at times through the first half of his rookie campaign, or a stifling Florida secondary led by standout cornerback duo CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson that gave the quarterback very few places to go with the ball. 

Malzahn placed a lot of the blame for Nix’s performance on himself.

"The big takeaway for me is I’ve got to put him in better situations," Malzahn said. 

He said he might have put too much on Nix in a matchup of that magnitude at a stadium that hostile to visitors.

Add in two keepers on the read option, and Nix either threw or ran the ball on 37 of the Tigers’ 61 plays Saturday. Malzahn didn’t once line up in a Wildcat set with either Whitlow or backup quarterback Joey Gatewood despite failing to convert on four third-and-shorts in the first two and a half quarters. Speedy sophomore wide receiver Anthony Schwartz’s, arguably the team’s most lethal home run threat, touched the ball only once.

Nix also had trouble communicating checks that came in from the sideline over the noise of the crowd, which often led to the play clock ticking down and the snap being rushed.

The next two times Auburn plays on the road, at Arkansas following this weekend’s bye and at LSU the week after that, Malzahn indicated that he would simplify things for Nix — fewer checks at the line, a better system for handling the noise, more plays he knows the quarterback is comfortable with running.

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Nix a true freshman who has played in only six games.

“That’s a learning experience,” Malzahn said. “He’s going to improve, he’s a winner and like I said, I’m going to do a better job moving forward putting him in situations that can help him. That’s my goal, that’s my job and we’ll do that moving forward.”

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