AUBURN — One of the more striking images from Saturday’s game at Jordan-Hare Stadium was quarterback Bo Nix walking out to midfield for the coin toss alone.
He’s one of Auburn’s four captains. The other three didn’t dress due to injury. Two — defensive end Big Kat Bryant and linebacker K.J. Britt — are senior leaders on defense.
And they weren’t the only players on the side of the ball who didn’t see action in the Tigers’ narrow 30-28 victory over Arkansas. Starting cornerback Jaylin Simpson hasn’t played since suffering an injury Week 1 against Kentucky. Junior college cornerback Marco Domio and freshman defensive lineman Jay Hardy haven't played at all due to injury.
Senior safety Jordyn Peters provided a spark when the fourth blocked punt of his career gave Auburn its first touchdown of the afternoon, but he was limited to only one more snap before exiting with an injury.
That takes a toll on a defense, especially one that loves to rotate players in and out to keep them fresh. Auburn played 23 defenders in its final game of the 2019 season. In the first game of 2020, it was 21. On Saturday, it was just 18 once Peters left. Four rarely came off the field, if they did at all.
The Tigers do rank second in the SEC in scoring defense, behind only Georgia, allowing 22.7 points a game. But they rank seventh allowing 5.7 yards a play and averaging 5.7 negative plays a game; ninth allowing quarterbacks to complete 65.6 percent of their passes; and 12th surrendering a conversion rate of 56.3 percent on third down.
Last season, those totals were 5.1, 6.9, 59.7 percent and 30.9 percent, respectively, against conference opponents.
Saturday’s game put some of those issues on display. The defense forced punts on each of Arkansas’ first five possessions, with three coming after three-and-outs. From there, the Razorbacks scored on five of their next six drives, all of which covered at least 65 yards. The only miss was a drive that started 38 seconds before halftime.
Auburn’s injuries are not the sole reason for that, of course. Arkansas’ offense played excellent once it stopped trying to establish the run and instead leaned on quarterback Feleipe Franks’ arm. After running on 73.3 percent of plays in the first quarter (1.9 yards a carry), it passed on 49.2 percent over the rest of the game (11.3 yards an attempt). Franks was incredibly efficient, completing 22 of 30 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
But you could see where the Tigers missed some of their stars. Specifically, Britt, who coach Gus Malzahn said will be out “for a while” after undergoing surgery Friday to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb. The first-team All-SEC linebacker wasn’t just Auburn’s leading tackler with 23 through two games, but he’s the quarterback of the defense.
“He lets you know what plays are coming and stuff,” junior linebacker Zakoby McClain said.
McClain and sophomore Owen Pappoe played well in his absence, combining to total 23 tackles (one for loss), but there were some plays missed, particularly in pass coverage. Two of running back Trelon Smith’s six catches for 78 yards stand out.
On third-and-nine from the Auburn 29-yard line in the second quarter, both linebackers blitzed. Smith slipped out of the backfield for a 16-yard reception that took the Razorbacks into the red zone, setting up their second touchdown two plays later.
On third-and-goal from the 5-yard line in the third quarter, Arkansas lined up with Smith in the backfield, three receivers split out wide left and one (Trey Knox) to the right. Auburn seemed to settle into a zone. Safety Jamien Sherwood went with Knox on a drag over the middle of the field, but neither McClain nor cornerback Roger McCreary picked up Smith, who was left wide open to catch a 5-yard score on an angle route.
Asked how Auburn would work to improve a pass defense that surrendered 558 yards (9.8 an attempt) and five touchdowns (to no interceptions) on 67.2 percent completion against Franks and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett over the past two weeks, Malzahn said the focus will be on “making the quarterback more uncomfortable.” The Tigers rank eighth in the SEC opposing the quarterback on only 19.1 percent of dropbacks. per SEC StatCat. Last season, that number was nearly 25 percent. They sacked Franks three times, but two came in the first quarter.
Coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive line coach Rodney Garner preach the importance of getting pressure with four, but on fourth-and-five from the Auburn 41-yard line in the fourth quarter, Franks had a clean pocket despite play-action and Zion Puckett coming on a blitz. He found Mike Woods for 11 yards and a first down, then hit De’Vion Warren for the go-ahead 30-yard touchdown one play later.
Injuries are a factor in that aspect, too. Puckett is a defensive back who was pressed into playing dime linebacker because of the injury to Britt. Bryant was looked at as the player who would lead Auburn’s pass rush this season after totaling 11 hurries last year, but he’s been limited since suffering an ankle injury during the last week of preseason practice and has only one tackle.
The Tigers rotated just seven defensive linemen on Saturday, and two — senior Daquan Newkirk and freshman Zykeivous Walker — were in and out of the lineup due to minor injuries.
Walker and Colby Wooden were the only two that made plays in the backfield, where each recorded their first career sack. But Auburn defensive linemen account for only six of the defense’s 17 tackles for loss through three games.
Despite all that, the Tigers got the key stop they needed late. And fortunately, Malzahn said they got out of the win with no new major injuries. Outside of Britt, he’s hopeful that at least some of the players who sat out against Arkansas will be able to return Saturday at South Carolina.
Auburn needs them. The Kentucky, Georgia and Arkansas offenses rank ninth, 10th and 13th in the SEC in yards per play, respectively. Four of the top five offenses in the conference (Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and LSU) loom on the schedule.
“At the end of the day, we can just get back in the lab, just focus on the things we can control, focus on our technique,” safety Smoke Monday said. “There's not really too many big things that we have to worry about; just the little things. We're just going to continue to take the next step every week.”