Observations: Auburn 14, Cal 10
Great defense bailed out ugly offense — something Auburn has seen all too often away from home. But, this time, the Tigers actually won.
HC Hugh Freeze and TE Rivaldo Fairweather (Auburn Football/Instagram)
BERKELEY, Calif. — While going through a Tiger Walk that was 2,438 miles from his home stadium — one that was so heavily attended that security and law enforcement weren’t sure what to do with all the Auburn fans — Jaylin Simpson wore a pair of bright orange sunglasses.
Printed on the arms of those shades were the words “4TH QUARTER CRAZZZY.” They proved to be somewhat prophetic.
Hours later, heading into the fourth quarter of Auburn’s road game at Cal, the Tigers somehow still had a chance to win.
The offense had generated just 3.9 yards per play and seven total points while turning the ball over three times. Then, after a false start and a third-and-long incompletion to open the final frame, Auburn punted the ball right back to Cal.
Cal marched down the field on Auburn, looking destined to extend its lead on a defense that had bailed the visitors’ dreadful offense one too many times.
But Auburn linebacker Eugene Asante — who reminded people after the game that he was on the scout team last year — continued his incredible night, forcing an incompletion on a blitz and then getting a sack on third down.
“I think the biggest thing is in the midst of chaos, there’s opportunity,” Asante said. “Everybody sees this chaotic scene, but there’s an opportunity to put water to the fire and cover our brother’s backs. We are our brother’s keeper.”
After getting into the red zone, Cal had a field goal from more than 40 yards out that it, once again, missed.
Then the Auburn offense that couldn’t do anything right went 69 yards in 10 plays for a go-ahead touchdown drive.
A passing game that had just 11 attempts for 38 yards heading into the fourth quarter converted a third-and-long to Rivaldo Fairweather, then opted to throw a fade to the transfer tight end on second-and-goal from the 5. The ball from Payton Thorne was spot-on. Fairweather won his jump ball matchup.
Touchdown. Auburn leads. Four quarter crazzzy.
“Just repetition with Payton,” Fairweather said. “Perfect timing, man. … Me and Payton, we do that every day — after practice, before practice, before we even started the season.”
But the game wasn’t over. Auburn forced a three-and-out and looked ready to salt the game before Jarquez Hunter fumbled the ball away for the Tigers’ fourth turnover. Cal threatened again before throwing an interception to D.J. James in the end zone on fourth down from the 18-yard line.
Three runs for a first down and three kneeldowns later, Auburn was — somehow — sprinting to that large, loud and rowdy visiting crowd to celebrate a bizarre 14-10 win.
“I don't think we could have played any uglier or sloppier on offense,” said Hugh Freeze, who got his first road win and first win over a power-conference team with just 230 yards. “I'm really proud of our defense and the plan that Ron (Roberts) and his staff had — the effort that they gave with their backs against the wall, it seemed like, time and time again.
“Just continued to find a way to get out of trouble and give us a chance to win the game. All the credit goes to that side of the ball tonight.”
Auburn has had its fair share of games when the defense played extremely well and the offense couldn’t get anything going.
But, even though Cal isn’t an SEC-caliber opponent, Auburn actually won one of these games away from Jordan-Hare Stadium. That counts for something, especially with a team that needed to go 4-0 in non-conference play to put itself in the best position to end its slide of consecutive losing seasons.
And, for a program that Freeze once again noted was still in rebuilding mode, finally being on the winning side of a rough game can go a long way.
“We’ve been working through so much adversity that when we all come together and buy in, we all know we have something special,” said Marcus Harris, who has played in a few of those defense-heavy losses. “It’s a never-flinch mentality. We never flinch.”
Here are five Observations from Auburn’s smash-and-grab 14-10 win at Cal, along with Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
LB Eugene Asante (Matt Cohen/AL.com/Twitter)
Eugene Asante and the defense did serious work
Heading into Week 2, the prevailing thought about Auburn’s matchup at Cal was that the Tigers’ offense should have opportunities to move the ball and put up points — but the defense was the troublesome side of the ball after all the errors it had in the win over UMass.
However, you’ve got to remember that every week is different, especially when you've got 18- to 23-year semi-pros playing a sport with a weirdly shaped ball.
Auburn’s defense held a Cal offense that lit up the scoreboard in Week 1 to just 3.5 yards per play and 10 points. (Yes, the Golden Bears had a worse yards per play average by the game’s end.)
Cal had a play inside the Auburn 40-yard line on eight of its drives and finished with 10 points. Auburn was very fortunate to get a rough night from the opposing kicker, but it says something about the defense that it could get handed short fields and still put the bulk of the scoring on a specialist.
The explosive Cal rushing attack that looked like a bad matchup for Auburn’s run defense averaged just 3.4 sack-adjusted yards per carry. Cal star Jaydn Ott had 20 carries for 78 yards, breaking two runs of more than 10 yards and just four runs of more than five yards.
“I guess they were supposed to run the ball on us or something,” Harris said.
A huge reason for that success? The play of Asante, who had one of the best games for an Auburn linebacker in years. Asante recorded a team-high 12 tackles, including his sack and another takedown behind the line of scrimmage, along with two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
On the plays where Asante recorded his tackles, only two of them went for first down. Eight of them — two-thirds! — went for three yards or less.
Asante is already looking like the new version of Deshaun Davis: a linebacker who gets a fresh start after a coaching change and takes full advantage of it.
In the passing game, Cal’s quarterbacks only completed 55% of their passes for 4.2 yards per attempt. Sam Jackson V, Thorne’s former high school teammate, threw two interceptions on last-gasp balls and finished with just six rushing yards.
“It really surprised me,” James said of the defensive performance, wearing the secondary’s celebratory seatbelt that Simpson had on last week. “I was happy to just see the defense coming together and feeding off each other.”
What was even more impressive was that the Auburn defense did it while not being anywhere close to 100% in terms of health.
Nehemiah Pritchett appeared to give it a go in warmups but missed his second straight game due to injury. Donovan Kaufman had another performance — which included a second forced fumble in as many games — cut short with what might have been a concussion. Keionte Scott and Jalen McLeod missed time but battled through pain to play late.
“We need our 2s ready to play and we need 3s ready to play,” Asante said. “The biggest thing is going in there and getting some game reps and getting that game experience. Ultimately, that’s going to help our team — getting more game reps and being more acclimated to being out there.”
After a sloppier-than-it-wanted performance against UMass, Auburn’s defense dragged the rest of the team to a win on the road Saturday night. The Tigers showed real week-to-week improvement.
Now they need to find that on offense.
That’s as bad as you can get on offense and still win
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell is an NFL writer, but he dipped into college football Saturday to provide this unreal stat: In the last five seasons, teams that had four turnovers and fewer than 15 first downs were 1-65.
They’re now 2-65, thanks to Auburn.
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