Bo Nix had finally found some rhythm, and seventh-ranked Auburn (5-1, 2-1 SEC) had finally found a running game.
JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow rattled off a few carries into the interior of the No. 10 Florida defense, forcing the Gators’ (5-0, 3-0 SEC) safeties to step up. Nix responded by promptly hitting Seth Williams deep over the middle. Auburn was in business, trailing by four, the clock winding down in the third quarter.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the Tigers’ 56-23 win over Mississippi State that the game was starting to slow down for Nix. The freshman had learned to deal with the adrenaline of playing in front of 90-plus thousand, as he did at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field.
On Saturday, in Auburn’s 24-13 loss within the not-so-friendly confines of The Swamp, it sped up again.
Nix took the shotgun snap and scanned the field — well, not the whole field. Just the part of the field that receiver Sal Cannella was streaking down. As Nix released a rope towards the 6-foot-5 Cannella the two Gators defenders around him converged. One of them caught the pass, sending the raucous crowd into a frenzy.
All the Tigers could do was walk lightly back to their sideline. Just like when Nix scrambled back-and-forth until falling down for a 22-yard loss, a “sack” that took the Tigers out of field goal range, with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.
It was just that kind of a day for Auburn’s offense, and specifically Nix, who had his freshman game in the toughest of environments. The freshman threw three interceptions, including one on the final play of the game. The Swamp was rocking Saturday afternoon, and Lamical Perine’s 88-yard run on the Gators’ first play after that 22-yard sack punctuated a strong outing from the home team, and a harsh dose of reality for the visiting Tigers.
“We’ve got a freshman quarterback, he’s going to grow,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I’ve got to put him in better situations.”
Part of Nix’s struggles can be attributed to Auburn’s run game, which was essentially nonexistent against the Gators for much of the afternoon.
The Tigers had 19 rushing yards in the first quarter and finished with 124. At one point, they had more penalty yards than rushing yards. The Gators’ front seven was dialed in, and the Tigers failed to truly establish much of an interior run game.
That only made life harder for Nix, who never really looked comfortable against the Gators’ pass rush and the loud environment at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Nix had major trouble early on changing the play at the line (at one point, he had to walk to each individual lineman and call the audible). When he did get the play in, the game clock, admittedly difficult to pick out on The Swamp’s video boards, ticked down near zero.
“This isn’t the only road game that we’ve got like this,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got a couple others that are going to be similar. But, we didn’t handle it very good. That’s disappointing, and it really surprised me. ... You work on communication, you work on picking up, sliding protections, everything that goes with that.”
The Tigers must now embark on a tough road stretch that includes Arkansas and No. 5 LSU, which continues to score points at a massive rate. The Tigers’ defense, to its credit, did its part to keep the game close until Perine’s touchdown sealed the win in the fourth quarter.
Auburn needs a run game if it’s going to escape this road stretch without another loss. It needs the game to slow down again for Nix, too.
“We didn’t get it done offensively,” Malzahn said. “I’ve got to do a better job at preparing our guys and having our guys ready. ... We’ll improve. Our guys will respond.”