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The good and the bad: What Auburn did well — and needs to improve on — in Oregon win

‘I’ve always wanted to play quarterback at Auburn’: Bo Nix named Tigers’ starting QB

Auburn Tigers freshman Bo Nix was named the starter at quarterback. He'll make his first start against the Oregon Ducks on August 31.
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Auburn Tigers freshman Bo Nix was named the starter at quarterback. He'll make his first start against the Oregon Ducks on August 31.

It’s Tuesday on a non-Power 5 opponent week in Auburn, which usually means a few things: the AP Top 25 Poll is released (Auburn is ranked No. 10 in this week’s poll), Gus Malzahn and a few players appear in-person before the media for the final time until Saturday, and the Tigers’ depth chart features lots of “OR”s.

A season-opening win against an opponent like Oregon can do wonders for a program that ESPN’s Football Power Index expects to win fewer than nine games. It was a real statement that the Tigers rolled into Arlington, Texas, and beat a top-12 Ducks team with a true freshman quarterback who, until then, had not faced a defense other than Auburn’s own, and those from Alabama’s Class 6A high schools.

The notion that the Tigers must improve is not an unsupported one. It’s only Week 2, so the season is still young.

“It’s our first home game,” Malzahn said. “Our players are very excited about that, our coaches are too. We’re playing a very good Tulane team. … They’re a veteran team.”

Let’s start with the good.

Some good

Defensive front

The unsung heroes of the Tigers’ 27-21 win. Led by Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe, the Tigers’ defense really kept them in the game.

Auburn’s defense held Oregon to just 90 rushing yards and held running back C.J. Verdell to 76 yards. The Ducks as a whole averaged under three yards per carry, thanks mostly to Justin Herbert’s minus-16 yards. The Tigers sacked him three times, which is how that statline ends up happening.

“It felt good to hit somebody else, man,” Brown said. “Fall camp’s a long stretch of just hitting the same people over and over.”

Of course, the fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter has to be mentioned, because without it, the Tigers probably lose the game. Take this as a lesson, kids: Never, ever, call a play out of the shotgun formation on fourth-and-1. It didn’t work for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney against Florida State in 2014, and it didn’t work for Ducks coach Mario Cristobal Saturday night.

The Tigers also held Oregon to just 4-for-14 on third downs and recovered a fumble, which Big Kat Bryant returned 83 yards to the Oregon 3-yard line.

Running game, sort of

JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow’s statline won’t show a touchdown, but he came within about a half-foot of one.

He finished with 110 yards and led all players in rushing Saturday night. Nothing flashy, but he did rattle off a few longer runs (his longest was 31 yards). Nix also carried the ball a few times, though he ran substantially less in the second half.

Malzahn’s main goal now is to find a running back option behind Whitlow. Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers each recorded carries against Oregon.

“That’s a focus of ours, no doubt,” Malzahn said. “I just felt like the other night, we just really needed to go with our veteran guy with the way the game was going. But that will definitely have to be a focus so we don’t wear (Whitlow) down. And we’ve got other guys that we feel good about.”

Nix finished with 42 rushing yards, second on Auburn’s team in rushing and more than Shivers and Martin combined. The lone rushing score came from Joey Gatewood, on a quarterback dive (literally) from one yard out.

It’s unclear how much Nix will run the ball going forward. He certainly presents a better running threat than, say, Sean White or Jarrett Stidham.

Second-half Bo Nix

There will be growing pains with Auburn quarterback Bo Nix. There usually are with true freshman quarterbacks. That said, Saturday was not a bad start to Nix’s career.

His stats were not flashy: He finished 13-of-31 for 177 yards, two touchdowns and two first-half interceptions. But late-game Nix was a much different player.

Nix’s scramble on fourth down, in which he made the first down by a third of the football, kept the Tigers’ chances alive. He looked like a quarterback in rhythm on his 13-yard throw to receiver Seth Williams, then found the sophomore again one play later for the game-winning score.

Nix is not a finished product yet, but he could’ve done much worse than he did against Oregon. For his first collegiate start, that’s OK.

“You know, he has at least a game under his belt now,” Malzahn said. “There’s a lot of things that he knows he can be better at than he was the first game, so we all expect to improve.”

Some bad

First-half offense

It goes without saying that if Auburn’s offense puts up a similar first-half performance against the likes of LSU, Georgia or Alabama, it might not be a close game for very long.

The Tigers mustered six points in the game’s first two quarters, and Nix threw two interceptions.

Ducks kicker Camden Lewis missed a 20-yard field goal on the Ducks’ second drive of the game, and Herbert fumbled the ball at the Auburn 14-yard line. The Tigers really should have trailed by three scores at halftime, had the Ducks been able to take advantage of their opportunities.

Which leads into the final point:

Special teams

Auburn’s special teams have seen better days than they saw Saturday.

The Tigers nearly surrendered a punt-return touchdown in the first half. Ducks safety Jevon Holland amassed 130 punt return yards (the one he should’ve scored was an 81-yard return), and Auburn’s kick coverage gave up returns of 33 and 24 yards.

“We’ve got to cover better, that’s really the bottom line,” Malzahn said. “... That’s definitely one of our biggest things that we’re addressing this week. It could be personnel; it could be some personnel changes. But we were pretty solid on that last year…

“We will do a better job this week with that in both of those areas.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.