Saturday showed why we were right to have so much skepticism about Auburn in Year 2 with Bryan Harsin
Chris Stapleton said it best.
“I’ve got nobody to blame but me.”
I couldn’t help but think of that hit song when I thought about Bryan Harsin’s showing on Saturday against Penn State. Auburn got bullied by a Big Ten team that it nearly beat on the road last year. A raucous Jordan-Hare Stadium was subjected to poor quarterback play, unimaginative play-calling and a gassed defensive front who couldn’t get off blocks.
If you followed Auburn throughout the offseason, none of those weaknesses were necessarily a surprise when Penn State brought them to the forefront on Saturday.
It wasn’t just that Harsin hitched his wagon to TJ Finley and ignored his past struggles against Power 5 competition. It wasn’t just that Harsin entered Year 2 on offensive coordinator No. 3. It wasn’t just that Harsin lost a wealth of depth on the defensive line.
It was all of it. And by day’s end, “all of it” felt like a wakeup call for 2022 Auburn apologists. At least it should’ve been.
In the first game Auburn had against real competition, it was smacked 6 ways to Sunday. For a coach who was hoping to quiet his long-term concerns following a coup to get him fired in February — something he wasn’t to blame for — it was less than ideal to look up and see a sparse crowd stick around for the closing seconds of a lopsided loss.
Why did it happen? And who’s to blame? Harsin. He built the football team who took the field. And if he wants to blame it all on not taking care of the football, that’s his right. For the rest of us, we can point to why those 4 turnovers happened and say they were a byproduct of Harsin’s doing.
Blame Finley for somehow always getting the ball poked loose despite his monstrous hands. Or you can blame Harsin for starting Finley and not building an elite offensive line to protect a statuesque quarterback.
To be fair, Finley did actually show off his mobility at times. When he stepped up in the pocket and took off, he actually looked like a dual-threat quarterback. The problem? That’s not Finley’s skill set. Neither is being in obvious throwing situations. Finley entered Saturday with less than 6 yards per pass attempt in the 6 career games in which he attempted 25 passes (he was 1-5 in those games with his teams averaging 17.2 points).
But Finley didn’t get to 25 passes on Saturday. Why? After an ineffective first half and a turnover to start the second half, Robby Ashford took over. It’s not ideal that when facing a 3-score deficit for the first time all year, Harsin’s best option was a guy who entered 2022 without a career snap at the FBS level.
Again, that’s on Harsin. He was the one who decided that the transfer portal additions Ashford and Zach Calzada would provide the depth needed at quarterback.
Ashford’s play-making ability as a runner might be part of the solution, but “solution” is a word that should be used loosely. You don’t suddenly flip the script on a result like that by going to someone who is still very much a project at quarterback. When Ashford threw his interception deep in Penn State territory down 24-6, Ju’Ayir Brown followed his eyes and stepped in front of his first read. It was a dagger.
But in many ways, this game was over well before then.
Auburn might’ve reached 2-0, but it was the only undefeated team with a turnover margin of -3 or worse. Auburn was -4 in turnover margin against aforementioned Mercer and San Jose State, so it was only fitting that the Tigers lost the turnover battle 4-0 against Penn State.
The Lions entered Saturday as a borderline Top 25 team, but it was clear which team had an identity and which didn’t. Auburn wished it had an offensive identity based on a smart quarterback with a potent 1-2 punch at tailback. That’s tough to establish when Tank Bigsby, AKA Auburn’s best player, goes the entire 2nd quarter without a carry.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s 1-2 punch of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined for 176 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground. Not too shabby. Not only did Auburn have no answer for the Penn State rushing attack, but it couldn’t get to Sean Clifford. Well, besides that early hit he took from Owen Pappoe on a scramble:
Welcome to the SEC, Sean Clifford. Wow. pic.twitter.com/SRV3LUnIT3
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) September 17, 2022
Yes, poor wording on my tweet. I’m an idiot. I was foolish to think that Auburn would at the very least, bring some physicality to the table.
Foolish, I was. Foolish anyone was if they bought into Auburn making noise in the SEC West.
It’s a football team with obvious weaknesses. The issues in the trenches were magnified. Yeah, it’s got veteran leadership in the middle of that defense with Pappoe, and Derick Hall is a first-team All-SEC guy. But the depth is lacking.
The same is the case on offense. In addition to questioning the faith in Finley, where are the receivers who can separate? There’s nobody in that group who can take the top off the defense. Shoot, there’s nobody who is even established as a “move the chains” guy.
That all falls on the head coach. Auburn’s schedule doesn’t allow any margin for error. A decent football team could go 6-6 with a schedule that includes the SEC West, a Georgia crossover and obviously, a Penn State team who looks ready to compete in the Big Ten East.
Harsin can talk about how little mistakes flipped the script of the game. Clearly, he wasn’t happy with the turnovers. At halftime, CBS Sports’ Jenny Dell asked Harsin if we should expect to see more of Ashford in the second half. Even though his team was -6 in turnover margin through its first 10 quarters of football to that point, Harsin said “what I expect is that we don’t turn the ball over.” That was then followed up by Finley’s fumble and Ashford’s red-zone interception.
Harsin doesn’t know what to expect from his team, but the rest of us should. Mediocrity. How else would you describe a team that’s 6-8 vs. FBS competition with its current head coach?
If you were sipping the orange Kool-Aid entering Saturday, that performance should’ve left your stomach a bit unsettled. Sure, it was 1 game. But it showed why a long year on The Plains awaits.
Harsin built a flawed football team, and he’s got nobody to blame but himself.