Assessing Auburn's 45-10 victory over Florida Atlantic

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 27, 2013 

AUBURN, Ala.Gus Malzahn subtly hinted at it.

In his postgame press conference following Auburn's one-sided, 45-10 victory over Florida Atlantic on Saturday night, he didn't outright say anything negative about the Owls. However, he knew the Owls weren't a team that could test the Tigers.

Hence Malzahn's quote, which served as his opening statement: "I really felt like our guys were ready to play," he said. "There was a lot of questions about how we would respond after a big win. I’d say our guys answered that by jumping on them early and taking care of business.”

No, he didn't say, "I'm glad that we beat a 2-6 team from Conference USA." But he didn't have to. The play of his own team — and in turn, how it forced Florida Atlantic to play — took care of that.

And as Auburn's head coach said, the team is to be commended for not sleepwalking through a game involving an opponent it could likely defeat with its backups playing for the duration. It happens to other teams around the country all too often. Just look at No. 7 Miami, which had to escape with a last-minute victory against Wake Forest on Saturday. Or even better, check out No. 13 Virginia Tech. After ripping off six straight victories following a season-opening loss to top-ranked Alabama, the Hokies lost at home to Duke on Saturday. Even worse, Virginia Tech was coming off a bye week. Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas was noticeably off, throwing four interceptions to aid the Blue Devils' upset bid.

The Tigers had an interception, too, with Jeremy Johnson tossing one early in the fourth quarter.

By then, however, Auburn was already ahead 45-10.

Johnson's performance will likely be scrutinized more than any other player on Saturday, though "scrutinize" is probably too harsh a word. Coming in relief for Nick Marshall, who went down with a shoulder injury on the first drive of the second stanza, Johnson threw two more touchdown passes to raise his season total to six.

And his most impressive play was his first one.

Fresh off the bench, he immediately found Sammie Coates in stride for a 36-yard touchdown pass. (Reporters were chuckling in the press box after that one. Yes, the Tigers really made it look that simple.)

Johnson and Coates connected for one more score in the first half — this one a 67-yard strike — to continue extending the Tigers' lead, which at that point was 28-0. The Owls were eventually able to put a couple of scores (a touchdown and a field goal) on the board to make the score look somewhat more respectable, but it didn't change how effortless it made the win appear for the Tigers.

As Malzahn would likely say, that aspect, more than anything else, was what pleased him the most.

And now it's time to dish out some grades from Saturday's game.

OFFENSE: A+

Ho-hum. The Tigers tallied 600-plus yards of total offense for the third time this season, a first in school history. Auburn not surprisingly did the majority of its damage on the ground, as the SEC's top rushing attack finished with 422 yards, the third consecutive game they have gone over 300 yards and fourth time overall this season. It also marked the second 400-plus yard showing of the season; the last time the Tigers had multiple 400-yard games on the ground in the same year came in 1985, when they had three.

I could keep listing all the gaudy offensive stats the Tigers compiled Saturday, but I have to stop at some point.

DEFENSE: A

So the Tigers gave up a touchdown and a field goal. So what? The Owls still gained only 247 yards of total offense. Florida Atlantic completed just 42.3 percent (11-for-26) of its passing attempts and had a miniscule 3.9 yards per carry. Aside from a shutout, Auburn's defense played as well as could be expected, even if one of its most notable players believed Saturday was far from "a complete game" for the unit.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A

Chris Davis had one of the most incredible plays of the game, taking a punt that he fielded at the 2-yard line — and carried him into the end zone — and returning it 70 yards. Not since Robert Baker's 79-yarder against South Carolina in 1996 had a Tiger had such a long return on a punt. Elsewhere on special teams, the Tigers had no surprises — in a good way. Cody Parkey went 1-for-2 on field goals, successfully converting a 43-yard attempt in the second quarter and missing a 40-yard effort as time expired in the first half. He also boomed five of his eight kickoffs for touchbacks, averaging 63.8 yards per attempt. Fellow senior Steven Clark only had to punt three times, but all three of his kicks pinned the Owls inside their own 15-yard line.

OVERALL: A

Much like the Western Carolina contest, Auburn could have named its score. The Tigers went with a more conservative approach when they felt like it, with Malzahn noting in his postgame press conference that his team's sole focus in the second half was to "play some people" and "run the clock out."

The only thing Auburn didn't accomplish Saturday? Come out of the game with all of its key players healthy. When Marshall went down in the second quarter, he didn't return for what the team said was a precautionary move due to a shoulder injury. Regardless, his health will be one of the dominant storylines heading into this Saturday's contest with Arkansas.

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