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Three numbers, two notes, one quote: Wrapping up Auburn vs. Kentucky

Auburn earned a hard-fought victory against the Kentucky Wildcats in week one. It was far from a dominant performance from beginning to end, but the Tigers gained a comfortable lead and control of the game in the fourth quarter. Early in the game, the visiting Wildcats brought the fight to Auburn, but the Tigers’ adjustments at halftime and the resurgence of the Bo Nix and Seth Williams connection carried the day.

Before looking ahead to Auburn’s rivalry game with the Georgia Bulldogs this week, we will take a closer look at the keys to Auburn’s season-opening win versus Kentucky. The following numbers, notes and quote give insight to how Auburn emerged victorious 29-13 against the Wildcats.

Three numbers:

3 and 0

The most important numbers in the contest between Auburn and Kentucky were three and zero, respectively. The Wildcats turned the ball over three times, while Auburn had no giveaways on the day. The three Kentucky turnovers also does not include the fake punt that punter Max Duffy failed to convert that essentially ended the game. Even great teams would struggle to overcome losing the turnover battle by a margin of three, and Kentucky is not an elite team.

Even though Kentucky controlled most of the first half, the goal line interception by Roger McCreary changed the entire course of the day. That first turnover by Kentucky kept points off the board for the Wildcats, and they were only able to put together one more scoring drive in the game.

Saturday’s game was a tale of two halves, but it really came down to Auburn’s ability to hold onto the ball and Kentucky’s inability to do the same over the course of the game. Each and every week the team that protects the football and is able to take it away from the opponent has a huge advantage.

36:29

Kentucky possessed the ball for over 60% of the game. In the first half, the Wildcats had the ball for nearly 70% of the time. Kentucky was able to methodically march the ball up and down the field behind their experienced offensive line and a trio of tackle-breaking tailbacks early in the game. Auburn’s inability to stop Kentucky on third down (especially in the first half) put the Tigers in a very precarious situation.

It was expected that there would be growing pains on the Tiger’s defensive line, but the defensive front seemingly had no answers for Kentucky’s rushing attack early. To Auburn’s credit, the defense was much better in the second half, forcing two turnovers and a number of three and outs.

Auburn came away with the win on Saturday, but against more explosive opponents the Tiger defense must do better on third downs and be more consistent stopping the run. Playing defense that long and against 75+ plays is not a recipe for success moving forward.

18
Auburn’s number 18 was the best player on the field. Wide receiver Seth Williams was a matchup nightmare for Kentucky and an almost automatic big play for quarterback Bo Nix. Williams had already proven to be a very good SEC receiver, but his performance against the Wildcats may signify that he is ready to be one of the best receivers in the country. If Seth Williams can consistently produce at a high level this season, that is going to cause a lot of problems for defensive coordinators in 2020.

Two notes

90 rushing yards will not cut it
As exciting as Bo Nix, Seth Williams and Auburn’s passing game was, the rushing attack provided reasons for concern. Admittedly, it is not surprising that an offensive line replacing four starters and a trio of running backs who have never been the first option at the college level did not excel in the first outing of 2020. The Tigers must settle into a starting offensive line group quickly so that those players can create the continuity that is necessary to be successful.

It was interesting that Auburn did not attempt some staples of the Gus Malzahn rushing attack that can help relieve some pressure from this new-look offensive line. I do not recall one jet sweep, buck sweep, reverse or any other runs attacking the edge against Kentucky. Those types of plays help create some room to run between the tackles and are certainly still in the playbook. Expect those to show up again in the offense very soon.

Bo Nix delivered in the second half
Auburn needed big plays to pull away in the second half, and Bo Nix made it happen. The Tigers struggled to get any offensive flow in the first half while Kentucky hogged the football. In the second half, Auburn’s defense made stops and gave the offense many more opportunities to put points on the board.

Nix threw two touchdowns to Seth Williams and another perfect ball to Eli Stove who was mismatched against a linebacker for the final score of the day. Nix was also the Tigers’ leading rusher for the game. Bo Nix can still improve his ability to stay in the pocket and stepping into throws under pressure, but he is the engine of the Auburn offense and proved once again that he can lead the Tigers to victory in close games.

One quote:

They had the ball on the half-foot line and we picked it. Of course, we went for six and it got called back but still just the momentum and not giving up any points. We still had the lead at halftime, which was huge.” – Gus Malzahn

The crazy turn of events at the end of the second quarter was the defining stretch of the game. Kentucky appeared to score a touchdown but was ruled down inside the one yard line. On second down Auburn stuffed the attempted quarterback sneak by Kentucky’s Terry Wilson. That led to Wilson throwing toward the endzone on third down, only to be intercepted by Roger McCreary.

McCreary and company sprinted 100 yards for what appeared to be a touchdown, only to be called back for targeting by Derick Hall during the return. So, a strange situation occurred where both teams were furious about perceived missed calls by officials (shocking).

It is irrelevant whether or not the officials made the right decisions once the call is made. At that point, all that matters is how the teams and coaches respond. Auburn outscored Kentucky 21-6 from that point on, securing a 1-0 start for the Tigers.

Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: zack@new-yhn.local or on Twitter @z_m_shaw