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Doug Segrest: Fueled by cupcakes, is Auburn ready for Penn State?

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Auburn vs Alabama State

Sep 11, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Bryan Harsin reacts after the game between Auburn and Alabama State at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Shannon/AU Athletics

The crispness of Auburn’s debut was replaced by an early malaise Saturday morning. You could hear it in the stadium. You could see it on the field.

It didn’t last, of course.

Back in the AP Top 25, Auburn celebrated with a sluggish first half against instate rival Alabama State. Despite a decided advantage in talent and depth, the 25th-ranked Tigers stumbled to an unimpressive halftime lead before going into Nitro mode en route to a 62-0 victory.

Read into it what you will (including a school-record tying 42 second-half points). But don’t read much.

Auburn clicked off yards at a better than 3-to-1 pace on the day, and Derek Mason’s defense dominated by forcing routine three-and-outs. The exception came in the first half, when Alabama State drove 71 yards to the shadow of the Tigers end zone, only to see the drive stall. The ensuing field goal attempt was blocked and returned 80 yards by Nehemiah Pritchett for a touchdown on the other end.

It was a sequel of a day-long theme.

Alabama State’s second possession ended up with another block – Barton Lester got to punter Aubrey Grace for the block, giving Auburn prime real estate at the Hornets 26-yard line. Auburn would settle for a field goal and a 6-0 lead.

Alabama State got in on the act to open the second half with a perfectly executed onside kick that provided unexpected possession in Auburn territory that seemed like the Tigers’ delayed wakeup call. Three plays netted four yards, forcing a punt. And the rout was on.

Part of the reason for the crispness in the 60-10 opening-day thumping of Akron was based on an offense that scored at will.

With an early start, it took Bo Nix and Co. 30 minutes to get the first jolt of adrenaline.

Once it kicked in, Tank Bigsby ran wild to set up the first score after intermission. And Georgia transfer Demetrius Robinson took a reverse and went down the sideline virtually untouched for a 36-yard touchdown. It was Robinson’s second big moment of the day – he produced Auburn’s first TD of the day on the receiving end of 6-yard pass from Nix.

There were other good signs: The swarming, confident defense, and Bigsby’s heir apparent at running back, freshman Jarquez Hunter, again showed flashes of what’s to come – throwing a shoe on one downfield journey and going 94 yards on another (cleats intact).

Alas, some of the concerns that haunted Auburn throughout the offseason remain.

Namely the ability to protect Nix and his decisions when things go awry. Twice in the first half, protection broke down with one collapse leading to a fumble, but no further damage. It’s a recurring theme that will amplify when the competition steps up.

Yet the biggest advantage Auburn has now is depth at the position. LSU transfer T.J. Finley made a relief appearance near the end of the third quarter. His first pass: a deep, 49-yard strike to Malcolm Johnson Jr. for six.

We still don’t have a good feel for these Tigers, despite six dominant quarters in the first eight. The schedule hasn’t helped. Creampuffs are good for the resume, but back-to-back helpings lead to lethargy.

That all changes next Saturday with a full-house, white-out visit to Penn State. Finally, we’ll get a feel for how real this Auburn team can be.

Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist.