War Eagle Extra

Auburn run game takes big step forward vs. Kent State, and other takeaways

Maybe those concerns surrounding Auburn’s dreadful rushing performance in its home opener last week were a bit exaggerated.

Say what you will about the opponent: Kent State was clearly outmatched from the get-go, so anything from this game, which the Tigers won 55-16, should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But head coach Gus Malzahn clearly emphasized the run Saturday night, from the start.

Bo Nix was involved in the run game right away, rattling off runs of 17 and 18 yards in the first half, then running for a score. His backup, Joey Gatewood, saw some rare first-half snaps and finished as the Tigers’ second-leading rusher, with 102 yards and two touchdowns. Then, there are the running backs.

Suddenly, it makes a lot more sense why Auburn’s running back depth chart has five “OR”s.

JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow ran the ball 17 times. Shaun Shivers ran it 12 times and Kam Martin ran it seven. In total, the Tigers finished with 467 rushing yards on 62 carries, a week after Whitlow was held below 20 first-half rushing yards by a stout Tulane front seven.

“I feel like we ran the ball good,” Martin said. “The o-line really did play really well ... We just needed the confidence, that little boost right there. I feel like now, it’s time. Time to go take over.”

Whitlow, despite the “OR” next to his name, is the Tigers’ starter. He’s taken the majority of the reps this season and finished Saturday’s game with 136 rushing yards, two touchdowns and no fumbles. But having a change-of-pace backup (four, in Auburn’s case) is a great compliment for any offense.

Given Malzahn’s dependence on the run with a young quarterback, a loaded backfield is invaluable. The Tigers played a lot of backups against Kent State, far more than they’ll play for the remainder of the season. But, Malzahn said it was important to build depth and confidence among non-starters. Every running back played, Malzahn said, except for D.J. Williams, who the head coach said was “a little banged up.”

“Offensively, we were able to run the football. We talked about being better on first down and we definitely did that tonight.” Malzahn said.

Ball security issues solved, for now

A week after Whitlow fumbled three times (two of which Tulane recovered), the sophomore rebounded with a strong performance that cannot be overshadowed by ball security issues.

Whitlow led all Tigers with 135 rushing yards, though he did drop what would have been a big gain on a pass from Nix. The Tigers, meanwhile, did not suffer a single turnover — the closest they came to one was when Nix mishandled a play-action fake to Anthony Schwartz and the ball bumped into the streaking receiver’s cast.

“It’s really important when we’re running the football and playing with pace,” Malzahn said. “That’s when we are at our best. It opens things up. It was a really good night. I think more than anything, it was just a commitment to run the football. We were very committed to doing that tonight and I think that helped also.”

Former Tiger scores on return to the Plains

Kent State quarterback Woody Barnett was a four-star quarterback recruit when he chose Auburn. He picked the Tigers over Alabama and Oregon. He never took a snap for the Tigers, as he redshirted his freshman season and was passed up for former Tiger starters Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and others. Eventually, he transferred to Kent State after a stint at the junior college level.

There were not many highlights for Barnett Saturday. His team lost by 39 points, he completed three passes and fellow quarterback Dustin Crum took the majority of the snaps. He did have a nice moment in the fourth quarter though.

Barnett threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kavious Price, who ran a post route behind the Tigers safeties.

“It was a great experience,” Barnett said. “It was nice to see the class I was recruited with. It was nice to see the boys come out and compete.”

Notable injuries

  • Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown exited the game in the first half. Malzahn said he was “winded,” and could not offer any more clarity. He said he would provide an update on Brown’s status Sunday.
  • D.J. Williams was “banged up,” according to Malzahn, and was the only running back who didn’t play.
  • No word on whether injured receiver Seth Williams could return next week when the Tigers travel to Texas A&M.
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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.