AUBURN — When an impressive Akron punt finally settled at the Auburn 8-yard line with 1:06 left in the first half Saturday, the typical inclination might have been to run the ball up the middle twice and run out the clock. Maybe even kneel to end the half. The Tigers were up 34-0 and had scored touchdowns on every possession.
Bryan Harsin saw it as a convenient circumstance.
“It was a good opportunity for Bo (Nix) and the offense to go out there and execute in kind of a two-minute situation,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on that, so that gave us an opportunity to do that.”
Simulating situational drills was an emphasis in preseason practices. But live game action has a different feel, no matter how many times a team has rehearsed something. The two-minute drill against Akron was an opportunity to put it to the test, and the offense delivered. Nix led a 65-yard drive in less than a minute to set up a 44-yard field goal with two seconds left in the half.
The points were effectively meaningless by that point in an eventual 60-10 final, but the sentiment was refreshing. Harsin finished his first half as Auburn football coach with points on every possession, and he sent a high-energy message that even in a blowout, every second matters. That’s a total new-coach cliché, but it helped that Auburn made the most of those snaps.
The same could be said for the end of the second half, when Harsin made sure his second-team offense got game reps with a five-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in the final 2:38. T.J. Finley, Jarquez Hunter and other backups got the same crunch-time experience.
“Those guys were able to finish and we scored in that situation, but ultimately it’s more about our guys having a chance to play and being able to take those valuable reps,” Harsin said. “Because you never know what’s going to happen. Those guys get a chance to play in the game. They get an opportunity to go against an opponent. Things happen in football, and before you know it, one of those guys could be in there playing a whole lot more.”
On Sunday when the team gathered, the players who didn’t get into the game as much donned full pads and took practice reps. That was to further Harsin’s point about spreading the opportunities when the situation allows it. He told the Sunday group that “our entire goal is to figure out ways, if you’re not a starter, to get in you in a role where you can contribute.”
Harsin hopes to diversify his play-calling as much as he’s varying his in-game personnel usage. There was a healthy run-pass balance in Auburn’s offense Saturday, but the coach admitted that was partially because Tank Bigsby and the run game were so effective on first and second downs that third-down passing situations were a rarity.
Against an opponent that’s not ... well, that’s not Akron, those high-leverage downs will increase, and the passing might as well.
“You’d like to say that we would be 50-50, which very rarely happens,” Harsin said, “but I think that’s what everybody feels is the ratio and all that. ... As far as the balance goes, if you can run it then you’re able to get your play-action, and you’re able to get some of the passing game stuff you want accomplished.”
With fewer third-down opportunities in the opener — Auburn averaged 12.1 yards of offense on 34 first down plays, whereas it only had six third-down attempts — that two-minute drill was extra valuable as a challenge for Nix in pass-heavy situations.
The most promising moments of the game might have been on that drive. Nix had some of his best pocket composure, completing the first passes to three different receivers: Demetris Robertson, John Samuel Shenker and Shedrick Jackson. Diversifying targets has also been an emphasis for him and Harsin.
The next play was one of the only times Akron forced Nix out of the pocket, but he crossed up defenders on a 15-yard scramble. Then he threw to a fourth receiver, Kobe Hudson, for 13 more yards. The Tigers were already in field goal position.
All of Nix’s attributes that stood out were on display in that series. It should provide a confidence boost to players (and fans) should such a situation arise with high stakes.
Harsin had called a proactive timeout to force Akron’s punt with more than a minute left. The coach got what he wanted.
“The end of half, the goal is always to try to get points or keep the other team from getting points,” Harsin said. “That’s always the mentality.”