Pregame analysis of Auburn's home game against Kent State:
What: Kent State Golden Flashes (1-1) at Auburn Tigers (2-0)
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. Central
Rankings: Auburn is No. 8 in the Associated Press poll and No. 9 in the coaches rankings. Kent State is unranked.
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, in Auburn
Line: Auburn by 35½
TV/Radio: TV: ESPN2; Radio: WTDR-FM, 92.7 (Oxford), WMSP-AM 740 (Montgomery), SiriusXM 190 (Streaming 961)
Three things Auburn must do
1. Start faster on the offensive line.
The story has been the same for Auburn’s offense in each of the first two weeks of the season. The offensive line has struggled in the first half — whether that be due to missing blocks, not creating enough push, its own scheme, the opponent’s scheme or some mix of all of them — only to adjust at halftime and find its footing in the second.
And that ability to make those adjustments and improve as the game goes along is a positive. The Tigers have outscored opponents 31-10 after halftime this season. They’re averaging nearly 5 yards a rush in the second half compared to just 3 in the first.
But it shouldn’t take five returning senior starters two quarters to start playing well as a unit. As right tackle Jack Driscoll said after the win over Tulane, rushing for only 20 yards in the first half of that game — which forced Auburn quarterback Bo Nix to attempt 29 passes through the first two quarters — is “unacceptable.”
“We’ve played two quality opponents. There's not very many teams around the country that can say that,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who added that he is not considering any changes to the starting unit. “And I thought our offensive line did good things in both games. And so, you know, I think it's just a matter of getting off to a faster start.
“I really expect each game that we do a better job of that.”
2. Be much more effective on first down.
Doing the first will help with the second. Auburn found itself behind the chains far too often against Tulane, which is part of why only five of 14 drives covered more than 35 yards and four went three-and-out (two others ended in fumbles).
The Tigers ran 32 first-down plays against the Green Wave — 21 runs and 11 passes. The runs averaged only 3.5 yards per attempt, with only five of them being longer than 5 yards. Nix completed only 4 of the 11 passes for a total of 20 yards, which is an average of fewer than 2 yards per attempt. Overall, that’s 2.9 yards per play on first down.
Auburn did convert 52.6 percent of third downs in the game, but 10 of those attempts were 5 yards or longer and half of those were 9 yards or longer.
For the season, the Tigers rank 88th nationally averaging 3.9 yards per rush on first down and are averaging only 5.9 yards per first-down pass attempt.
“I think that’s what really stands out to me after two weeks, is we got to be better on first down,” Malzahn said. “When we’re better on first down, it helps everybody out, including our quarterback. It helps him grow and everything that goes with it.”
3. Get wide receivers to make plays in the scramble drill.
One thing Nix has shown great ability to do is escape the pocket and keep a play alive when he faces pressure. And when he has done that, his tendency hasn’t been to run (excluding sacks, he has only carried seven times through two games), but rather to continue to look downfield and make a play through the air.
There just simply haven’t been many plays for him to make in those situations so far. That was particularly true Week 1 against Oregon, when he went 0 for 7 passing on plays when he scrambled out of the pocket (five of those attempts were pure throwaways). The results weren’t much better against Tulane.
“We didn't do a great job last night. And that was really a focus, too, that we’ll have on this week,” Malzahn said Sunday. “Anytime you can extend plays, a lot of times those broken plays can turn into scramble drills and you get some cheap ones.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that Auburn’s wide receiving corps is so thin right now — Seth Williams will not play Saturday due to a shoulder injury, fellow star sophomore Anthony Schwartz still has a soft cast on the left hand he broke in August, and freshmen Ja’Varrius Johnson and Jashawn Sheffield have not debuted yet due to their own ailments.
“It’s the next man up,” senior Sal Cannella said. “We’ve got an opponent to face this week and we’re going to go out to battle with the guys we’ve got and I’m confident that we’ll get the job done.”
This is a game that Auburn should win handily. Things didn’t look particularly easy on offense against Tulane last week, but Tulane is a quality AAC team that will more than likely make a bowl game again this season. Kent State, on the other hand, is coming off a 2-10 season behind former Tigers quarterback Woody Barrett (who is currently fighting for his starting job). The Golden Flashes defeated Kennesaw State in overtime last week, but the week before, they lost 30-7 to an Arizona State team that struggled to defeat Sacramento State 19-7. Auburn will do better on offense this week than it did last week — which will help the team feel good about where it stands going into next week’s SEC opener at Texas A&M — but not better enough to cover a 35½-point spread. Kent State musters a field goal against a Tigers defense dead set on pitching a shutout and manages to cover on the road.
Auburn 37, Kent State 3