It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but the Auburn Tigers prevailed, 21-16 over Washington on Saturday in a battle of top 10 teams to open the 2018 season.
There were things Auburn did very well, as in any big win, but there are still some things the Tigers need to improve moving forward. But make no mistake, this was a huge win and one that will look very good on their resume down the road.
Here are five things I liked about Saturday’s big win, and also three things that I believe should and can be improved.
1. Scoring on the first possession: This doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but taking an early lead puts pressure on the opposition and puts questions in their heads from the outset. A 32-yard punt return by Ryan Davis put the Tigers in good field position and the offense did the rest. Sal Cannella picked the perfect time to leap and catch his first touchdown pass at Auburn, a 10-yarder from QB Jarrett Stidham.
2. Stidham’s leadership: In his second season under center, Stidham continues to grow and take ownership of the Auburn offense. He was a very effective 26-for-36 passing for 273 yards.
“We knew it would come down to the end,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were talking about that, and leaders like Darrell (Williams) and Jarrett (Stidham), they seized the moment. Even when it didn’t look super at times, they just kept believing and just willed us to win and found a way to win.”
3. Goal-line defense: The Tigers made it very difficult for one of the nation’s powerhouses to reach the end zone. DE/LB Nick Coe made a huge play to preserve a 15-13 third-quarter lead, forcing a fumble on third-and-goal at the Tigers’ 3-yard line that LB Darrell Williams recovered. Deshaun Davis made a big tackle deep in Auburn territory. Then Williams’ last-second deflection of what looked like a Washington touchdown pass kept the Huskies frustrated.
4. Rallied after losing the lead early in the fourth quarter: A lesser team would have been deflated if it led throughout the game only to let the Huskies take the lead in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. But Stidham led a winning drive, highlighting the march with a 21-yard strike to Darius Slayton before JaTarvious Whitlow bolted into the end zone on a 10-yard run.
“We’ve been talking about overcoming adversity,” Malzahn said. “You look at last season, we didn’t win hardly any, if any, close games, and we knew this was going to be a close game.”
5. Big defensive play from Williams and SS Daniel Thomas: The two led the team with eight tackles apiece. It’s the fourth time in Williams’ career that he has led the team in tackles. For Thomas, it was a career high and the second time he led the team in tackles.
I Didn’t like
1. Penalties: The Tigers committed 12 penalties. That hasn’t happened in years. It’s an area Auburn must clean up if it expects to build on Saturday’s huge win.
2. Inability to cash in: Too many times, Auburn was forced to settle for field goals. After reaching the end zone on its first possession of the game, Auburn was relegated to attempting field goals on its next four drives — connecting on three. We’ve seen this same scenario played out way too many times over the last few years.
3. Pass defense: Granted this is probably nit-picky given that Washington QB Jake Browning is among the best in the country. Still, the Tigers gave up nearly 300 yards (296) through the air. Given that the SEC is gifted with very talented quarterbacks, the Tigers will need to tighten up somewhat on pass coverage or there are going to be a lot more nail-biters on the horizon.