As Gus Malzahn’s football team puts the finishing touches on preparations for Saturday night’s home opener there are plenty of reasons for Auburn fans to be encouraged, but there is also much work to be done by the players and coaches.
Job one this week is getting a handle on why the Tigers had such a difficult time on punt coverage. Oregon’s Jevon Holland is a good return man, but allowing him to gain 131 yards on three punt returns almost got the Tigers beat.
Defensively, the top priority needs to be finding a more consistent pass rush. The Tigers sacked Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert three times, but most of the night the pro prospect had plenty of time to throw the football. The official stats credited the Tigers with just one quarterback hurry and that isn’t close to the number needed.
Last season the Tigers averaged 3.5 quarterback hurries per contest, a number they were hoping to improve during 2019. With Tulane’s quarterback a major passing threat, this would be a good week to dial up the pass rush pressure.
A focus for game two improvement on offense needs to be red zone production. The Tigers managed to score just two touchdowns on five separate possessions in which they moved the ball inside Oregon’s 20-yard line. With a veteran line, a mobile quarterback and talent at running back, the Tigers should be tougher to defend near the goal line.
The Tigers came out of their trip to AT&T Stadium with plenty to be pleased about, especially the grit this group showed when things weren’t going well. After falling behind 21-6 with 9:23 left in the third quarter the Tigers didn’t get discouraged. Instead, they kept pressuring Oregon’s offense and defense until cracks appeared. When that happened the Tigers took advantage of their opportunities to rally for an exciting 27-21 victory.
Many fans might be surprised to learn that this week’s Auburn opponent, the Tulane Green Wave, could have enough talent to give the Tigers a test. Following a strong finish to the 2018 season that included a bowl victory over Louisiana-LaFayette, Tulane returns 16 starters from a squad that won five of its final six games last year and opened this season with a 42-14 victory over FIU, a team that won nine games in 2018.
Justin McMillan, a graduate transfer quarterback from LSU, led the charge last season for the Green Wave and is coming off an outstanding performance in his team’s opener last Thursday in New Orleans.
Despite this being a potentially up year for Tulane, the Tigers should be able to handle an opponent from the American Athletic Conference, but you can be sure that Malzahn wants much more than that. Auburn’s head coach will be glad to come out of the game 2-0, especially considering the early season losses suffered by other SEC teams. However, he won’t really be pleased unless the Tigers show considerable improvement in all areas from game one to game two.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter