Tonight, Auburn plays host to the San Jose State Spartans from the Mountain West Conference.
The Spartans make their way down South as sizeable underdogs. But they are 1-0 on the season and victorious the last time they took on an SEC foe – Arkansas in 2019.
Auburn will certainly have the edge in overall talent but need to answer several questions to put away the Spartans and prepare for the upcoming gantlet of a schedule.
This is the final tuneup for the Tigers before facing Penn State next week and then entering SEC play.
Take a look at three important areas to watch as Auburn takes on San Jose State this evening in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In the season opener, quarterback TJ Finley began the game completing eight of his first nine passes. He was composed against the pass rush and avoidec critical mistakes.
Then, on the final drive of the first half, Finley threw an interception on 3rd and long, setting up Mercer for its only touchdown against the Tigers’ starting defense.
To make matters worse, on the first drive of the second half, Finley tossed his second pick of the game, and then found himself watching the rest of the night’s action.
With Finley on the sidlines, redshirt freshman quarterback Robby Ashford showed flashes of brilliance in his first college action.
To be fair, Ashford also threw a pass or two that could have been intercepted, but the opponent did not make the play.
What makes the freshman so intriguing is that, in addition to completing two of the nicer passes of the game, he also completely outclassed Mercer as a rusher.
This explosive element that Ashford can bring combined with Finley’s turnovers have stoked the quarterback competition flames in the Auburn world.
However, those conversations may be reserved among the fandom. Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin said repeatedly in the last week that TJ Finley is the starter and Robby Ashford will get opportunities to play his role in the offense.
As long as Finley plays a clean game tonight, then all signs point to him remaining the starter. However, if Finley were to struggle and Ashford avoids mistakes and creates big plays, then the position becomes quite interesting.
Regardless of who it is, Auburn needs to have a reliable quarterback with confidence in himself and ready to lead the Tigers in 2022.
Force negative plays
Auburn’s defense did exactly what it was supposed to do against Mercer, especially the starting unit.
The Tigers allowed one touchdown and one field goal, both following Auburn turnovers, before a final score was conceded by the second team following the weather delay.
Auburn’s defense never allowed Mercer to gain any traction running the ball and largely kept the Bears from converting any big gains through the air.
However, if there is an area for the Auburn defense to improve against San Jose State, it could be to create a number of big plays.
The Tiger defense would love to create a turnover or two to set the tone for the game and the rest of the season.
Similarly, Auburn would like to convert some of the pressures on the quarterback that it generated last week into sacks tonight by getting the passer to the ground.
In today’s era of football, a great defense needs to be able to generate takeaways, force negative yardage plays, and hold opponents to field goal opportunities when they reach the red zone.
The contest against San Jose State is a great opportunity for Auburn to get the ball rolling on becoming a great defense.
The most proven group of players on the Auburn offense are the tailbacks. That is largely because the Tigers’ best offensive player is junior running back Tank Bigsby.
On the flip side of that coin is the receiving corps. Fifth-year senior Shedrick Jackson has been a staple of the offense for the last few years, but largely as a role player.
Aside from Jackson, the Tigers returned very little production at the receiver position this season.
That is why it was such a welcome sight to see Ja’Varrius Johnson burst onto the scene with a team-high 117 yards on four catches.
The diminutive slot receiver was able to get open down the field and capitalize by making the catch.
Auburn needs Johnson to continue to make plays while other options emerge as real threats in the passing game. This would take pressure off the Tigers’ rushing attack and create big plays.
The matchup against San Jose State is an opportunity for unproven pass catchers to gain repetitions and confidence that can carry them to greater heights that Auburn will need in the games to come.
Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers.