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Auburn Corner: Freeze passes his first test on the Plains

Auburn got the Hugh Freeze era started off right last Saturday. Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford looked good, and now the Tigers head out West this week for a challenge against California.

The Tigers handled business as they were supposed to in their season opener, taking down UMass 59-14. Nobody expected a competitive game, and despite an early 89-yard touchdown drive for the Minutemen to tie the game at 7, Auburn did what they were supposed to do.

Run defense had been an issue for the Tigers, and they must improve as conference play approaches if they hope to compete in the SEC this season.

After being gashed on the long touchdown drive, however, the Tigers did not give up another score until garbage time in the fourth quarter.

While you can’t read a ton from beating UMass, the reconstructed offensive line looked good and Auburn ran the ball very well (289 yards as a team) despite missing star running back Jarquez Hunter, whose absence still remains a mystery. Sean Jackson, Jeremiah Cobb, Damari Alston, and Brian Battie led a Tigers running back room by committee which was very effective on the ground.

Perhaps the most interesting thing from the game was the way Freeze deployed Ashford.

He finished off three touchdown drives for the Tigers after Thorne got them into the red zone, rushing 9 times for 51 yards and three scores.

Was this Freeze simply being experimental in game one, or a real glimpse into how the Tigers will run their offense in 2023?

I thought Thorne was impressive in the 17 throws he did make. He completed 10 of his passes for 141 yards and a touchdown and made a few throws that displayed first-hand why Freeze brought him in from Michigan State.

Now, Auburn turns its focus to California. The Tigers are favored on the road by 6.5 points in a game that will not kick off until 9:30 pm Central Time.

Cal is coming off a 4-8 season, but just defeated North Texas 58-21 in their opener and this game could be closer than many anticipated during the offseason.

On paper, Auburn has significantly more talent and should be able to handle the Golden Bears with relative ease. But in an early season road game where the Tigers are still trying to figure out their offense, California could certainly give them some trouble.

It’s a game Auburn must win before a gauntlet of an SEC schedule begins in two weeks, but it will not be a cake walk.

California rushed for more than 350 yards in week one and will attempt to run the ball all night against Auburn. Time will tell if Freeze’s defense is up to the task.

You can follow Michael Brauner on Twitter @MBraunerWNSP

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