There’s a lot that you can quibble with regarding Auburn’s 21-16 win over Washington. For all of the room for nitpicking, this much is undeniable:
Last year, the Tigers lost to a national championship contender but still managed to play their way into playoff contention until the very end.
This time, the Tigers won. As much as Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wanted to skip over the blemishes, he was right about this much.
“We beat one of the better teams in the country,” Malzahn said. “We faced some major adversity, but the team found a way to win.”
Yeah, about that adversity. Much of it was self-inflicted. The Tigers committed 12 penalties for 111 yards, and both of those numbers don’t tell the full story. They were flagged three other times, but those penalties were declined because the Huskies came up with big plays. The yardage total doesn’t reflect a long punt return by Ryan Davis that was negated.
The Tigers’ running game showed it needs much improvement. They did gain 147 yards, a decent day’s work. But it took them 45 carries, so the efficiency wasn’t there. Kam Martin led the team with 80 yards on 22 carries.
Auburn’s offense is built on a strong running game. The Tigers will be hard pressed to get through the SEC season unscathed, especially the gauntlet of Georgia and Alabama on the road in November.
But early-season aesthetics are relatively meaningless. The Tigers barely escaped Mississippi State in Starkville in the second game of 2010 when they won the national championship. They also scraped by a pretty middling Washington State team in the 2013 season opener. Four months later, they were in Pasadena playing Florida State for the national championship.
“I think any time you’re playing a top 10 defense Week One, you’re definitely going to have some things you look at the film on Sunday and see you have to work on,” said Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. “But overall, I thought we played really, really well for Week One. Obviously, a lot of things to correct. But I really like where this football team is at.”
Something else to clean up is Malzahn’s decision making. The Tigers scored on their first possession on an incredible catch by Sal Cannella. But then Malzahn made the curious decision to go for two.
No, not curious – reckless.
Malik Willis was stuffed on the conversion.
“We’re going to be aggressive, I can tell you that,” Malzahn said.
Well that’s a convenient way to spin it. For a while, it looked like that decision might cost Auburn the game. After trailing the entire game since that first score, Washington took a 16-15 lead on Peyton Henry’s 30-yard field goal.
If Auburn had lost by a single point, the blame would have fallen squarely on Malzahn.
He can thank a few players for bailing him out. Start with Chandler Cox, whose 12-yard catch on third-and-9 ended a succession of three-and-outs by the Auburn offense that extended back to the second quarter.
He can also thank Darius Slayton, whose 21-yard catch moved Auburn down to the Washington 25.
He can thank Jatarvious Whitlow, who burst through the middle and drove Huskies safety Jojo McIntosh backward into the end zone for the Tigers’ go-ahead score.
“It was a mental thing,” Whitlow said. “We were at a point where we needed to pound, and we needed to go. Everybody needed to count on everyone else and play like we were going to play.”
And finally, Malzahn can thank his defense. They weren’t perfect. Far from it. Busted coverages and penalties put them in a bind. The Huskies entered the red zone six times but reached the end zone only once. Twice they came away empty altogether.
But they truly saved their best performance for the end. After Washington quarterback Jake Browning scrambled a first down to the Auburn 37, it looked like the Tigers could be in trouble. But they stuff running back Myles Gaskin on first and second downs. Then Big Kat Bryant sacked Browning to set up fourth down. Then Auburn rushed 16 players – OK, so it just seemed that way – and engulfed Browning once again. He somehow managed to flip a pass off into the backside of his offensive line so it technically wasn’t a sack.
But that was the ball game.
In the end, as in the beginning, the Tigers very much looked the part of a national championship contender.
“The great thing,” Malzahn said, “is when you win, you can correct things a little bit easier. Today, I’m really proud of our team. I want them to enjoy this.”