Film Room: How T.J. Finley and Robby Ashford worked together — and separately — vs. Mercer
Bryan Harsin and Eric Kiesau wasted no time in playing two quarterbacks during Auburn's 2022 opener. Here's what we learned about the signal callers Saturday night.
QB Robby Ashford (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
It only took four plays for Auburn to have a situation on its hands at quarterback this season.
OK, perhaps that’s being melodramatic. Because when Robby Ashford took the fourth snap of the season for the Tigers, an 8-yard gain on a split zone read keeper, T.J. Finley finished the drive, which featured two good third-down conversions through the air.
And when Ashford broke off a 49-yard run on another zone read to start Auburn’s second drive, Finley checked back in two plays later and ripped a 39-yard strike downfield for an explosive play. On the next play, he threw his first touchdown pass of the season.
Auburn looked committed to running some sort of two-quarterback system Saturday night against FCS opponent Mercer. And, for most of the first half, it worked. Ashford was a nice change of pace from Finley, who completed eight straight passes and looked to be in command of the offense as QB1.
But Finley threw interceptions to close the second quarter and open the third quarter for Auburn’s offense, taking potential points off the board for the Tigers and helping create some for the visiting Bears. Auburn then went with Ashford for the rest of the way.
Ashford’s performance compared to Finley’s naturally created questions for head coach Bryan Harsin after the game. And he cooled down any replacement talk this early in the season.
“I think we’ve got to watch the film first,” Harsin said. “And again, look, T.J.’s our starter. He came into the game as our starter. And Robby got a chance to play and did well. T.J. had a couple of turnovers. Not ideal. Not exactly what you’d want. But we’re not making any decisions right now.
“We’re going to go back and really look at what was it that caused the turnovers? How did guys really play? Because there’s a lot of other things too. Just stuff that you guys don’t see. It’s not just throwing the ball. It’s how he’s operating as well. There’s plenty to learn.”
It’s a perfect time to take Harsin’s message to heart. Welcome to the third season of The Auburn Observer Film Room. For this season-opening edition, we rewatched and charted all 62 of the Tigers’ offensive plays against Mercer and paid close attention to the quarterbacks.
Of course, it’s just one game against an FCS opponent. But how did Finley and Ashford measure up Saturday night, and what could that tell us about how the Tigers might move forward with what was a creative offense in the opener?
First, here are the numbers to know
Finley was the lone quarterback on the field for 36 plays against Mercer. Auburn recorded 229 yards on those plays for an average of 6.36 per snap.
Through the air, Finley was 9-14 for 112 yards. Two of his incompletions were misfires. Two more were the interceptions. The remaining incompletion was a tough grab that couldn’t be completed through contact. Finley finished the night with an average of 8.0 yards per attempt and an adjusted completion percentage of 64.3%. His average depth of target — the amount of yards the ball went downfield on his throws — was 12.5 air yards.
Ashford went 4-7 passing for an even 100 yards. One of his incompletions was a misfire. The other two were balls that hit his receivers in the hands, and I marked them both down as drops. (Your definition of drops, as well as the Auburn coaching staff’s, may vary.) Ashford finished with an average of 14.3 yards per attempt and a strong adjusted completion percentage of 85.7%. His average depth of target was almost identical to Finley’s, coming in at 12.3 air yards.
Then there’s the rushing element. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Auburn found more success running the ball when the signal caller was Ashford, a noted dual-threat quarterback who broke off a huge run in this game. Auburn ran the ball 17 times for 145 yards, which is an average of 8.53 yards per carry with Ashford.
With Finley as the primary quarterback, Auburn ran the ball 20 times for 116 yards. That’s an average of 5.8 yards per carry. However, it’s worth noting that if you take away the two massive runs that happened for each of the quarterbacks during their respective times on the field, Ashford’s average drops to 3.8 and Finley’s is at 4.1.