The Tigers got off to a slow, sloppy start in Saturday’s 62 – 0 win over Alabama State, with special teams being the lone bright spot in an otherwise dark first half before exploding for 35 points in the third quarter.
Bo Nix missing receivers, receivers dropping easy catches and penalties were commonplace in the first half, with Nix going 8-16 for 80 yards, a touchdown, a fumble and a flurry of dropped interceptions.
“I think we bothered ourselves more than anything (in the first half),” head coach Bryan Harsin said, “but (Alabama State) played hard.”
The Auburn special teams unit was the game changer in the first half, blocking a punt and field goal attempt, returning the latter for a touchdown. Kicker Daniel Carlson added two field goals of 23 and-34 yards, with the Tiger special teams accounting for 14 of the team’s 20 first half points.
“We scored on offense, we scored on defense and we scored on special teams,” Harsin said. “We made big plays in all three phases.”
The blocked punt came with six minutes remaining in the first quarter, blocked by linebacker Barton Lester. It wasn’t the first time the senior from Montgomery was involved in a blocked punt, as he recovered former special teams ace Jordyn Peters’ blocked punt for a touchdown last season against Arkansas.
The blocked kick came after a long, 10-play, 72-yard drive by the Hornets. Deep in Auburn territory Alabama State came up short on third down, and settled for a field goal on fourth down. With Auburn up 13-0 a made kick would’ve cut the lead to 10 points, but Colby Wooden had other plans. The sophomore linebacker got a hand on the kick, allowing Nehemiah Pritchett to pick up the ball and return it 80-yards for a touchdown and a 20-0 Auburn lead.
“It's the best (playing on special teams),” Prichett said, “most of the time you want your best players on the field. We’re just doing whatever we can do to help the team.”
It was the first time an Auburn team blocked both a punt and a field goal attempt since the 2013 Iron Bowl.
“We created momentum on special teams,” Harsin said, “defense and offense got rolling together.”
Harsin’s Tigers picked it up in the third quarter, where they scored 35 points while only running eight offensive plays. Wide receiver Demetris Robertson added two more touchdowns, cornerback Roger McCreary scored on a pick-six and receiver Malcolm Johnson Jr. scored on a long pass from backup quarterback T.J. Finley.
“The offense was in a bind (in the first half),” Roger McCreary said, “so what we did on the sideline was just pick them up ... We told them to go out there and finish out strong, and that's what they did.”
The third quarter scoring barrage wrapped up with a 94-yard rushing touchdown by Jarquez Hunter, which set the new record for longest run in program history. The previous record was 92-yards and set in 1936.
“I wasn't tired,” Hunter said, “I had a lot of adrenaline. That was gonna be my last drive so I had to get that one.”
One last touchdown was added in the fourth quarter to give the Tigers their second 60-point game in a row, the first time that has happened to an Auburn team since 1932.
Auburn was able to recover from early mistakes and bounce back against an FCS opponent, but that will be a more daunting challenge against Penn State next week. The Tigers will have to get off to a hot start to avoid a similar start next Saturday.