Auburn vs. Oregon

JaTarvius Whitlow runs in the first half. Auburn vs Oregon on Saturday Aug. 31 2019 in Dallas. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

AUBURN — The numbers that stood out most at halftime of Saturday’s game at Jordan-Hare Stadium were 29 and 20.

The first is the number of passes true freshman quarterback Bo Nix attempted through the first two quarters. The second is the number of rushing yards Auburn had as a team during that same span.

Not attempts; yards. Only 20 of them, on 13 carries, which is an average of fewer than 2 yards a rush. JaTarvious Whitlow carried eight times for 8 yards, Kam Martin two for 5, wide receive Eli Stove two for 4 and Nix one for 3.

“That's unacceptable,” senior right tackle Jack Driscoll said.

Head coach Gus Malzahn concurred. And to the Tigers’ credit, their rushing totals rose exponentially in the second half. Take out a kneel down to end the game, and the home team carried 31 times for 153 yards over the third and fourth quarters of a 24-6 win over Tulane.

It’s similar to the way last week’s 27-21 victory over Oregon played out. No. 13 Auburn managed only 70 rushing yards on 17 carries in the first half of that game before breaking out for 136 yards on 26 carries in the second, which is how it was able to erase a 15-point third-quarter deficit with three unanswered touchdowns capped off by Nix’s 26-yard strike to Seth Williams with nine seconds remaining.

The fact that the Tigers have made those halftime adjustments in each of the past two weeks is a positive. The fact that they have had to make them in the first place, however, is not — especially with five returning senior starters on the offensive line.

“When we run the football, we're a pretty good offense. That's really got to be a focus moving forward,” Malzahn said. “We've just got to get more successful in the first half.”

The reasons why Auburn wasn’t Saturday, according to coach and players, are twofold. One, the Green Wave have a stout defensive front, just like Malzahn said they would. They start five upperclassmen in their front seven. They held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry last season and Florida International to just 2.3 in a win last week.

“I played them when I was at UMass, and it was the same thing — they were one of the best fronts that I ever saw, and I've played a lot of good teams,” Driscoll said. “They were quick, they were strong. Kudos to their coach; they gave us a lot of hard looks and they kept us guessing.”

Two, a lot of those looks were heavy against the run. Tulane played with eight defenders in the box through much of the first half, often bringing down a safety or blitzing a corner to outnumber Auburn’s blockers. The idea, the Tigers determined, was to test Nix in just the second start of his career.

The true freshman responded well, at least for the most part. He completed only 15 of those 29 pass attempts, but he threw for 174 yards and didn’t turn the ball over. After Auburn went three-and-out on three of its first four possessions (which featured zero runs of more than 3 yards), Nix led back-to-back touchdown drives with his arm, using a 25-yard screen pass to Whitlow to set up a 31-yard scoring strike to Will Hastings on the first and a 40-yard deep ball to Seth Williams to set up Eli Stove’s 4-yard sprint into the end zone on the second.

Nix completed 5 of 7 passes for 107 yards on those two drives. But while it did work for a brief stretch, it’s not the way the Tigers want to play on offense.

“They kind of just loaded the box and made it hard for us to find some gaps there in the first half,” Nix said. “But once we figured out what we could do to run the ball in the second half, it opened a lot of things up.”