Observations: New Mexico State 31, Auburn 10
After its most dominant win in years last week, Auburn lost in all three phases for arguably its worst loss in program history.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
What happened inside Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday goes beyond getting tangled up in a trap game.
It goes beyond looking ahead to what was shaping up to be an intriguing Iron Bowl at home. It goes beyond simply not taking an underdog as seriously as you should.
Auburn has had those games before, and it’s almost always won them: Jacksonville State in 2015, ULM in 2012, Utah State in 2011 and a couple of close calls in 1999, to name a few. Even the most shocking non-conference home losses — like South Florida in 2007 and Southern Miss in both 1990 and 1991 — were decided by very slim margins.
No, Saturday was different, because an Auburn team that had won three straight SEC games lined up across from New Mexico State in its own stadium and lost by three touchdowns.
“I don't even know how to feel right now, to be honest with you,” safety Jaylin Simpson said. “I'm just in disbelief. I don't know, it doesn’t feel like real life to me.”
In terms of Vegas point spreads, opponent caliber and/or margin of defeat, you can piece together a strong argument that this was the worst loss in program history. And it was coming on the heels of what was arguably Auburn’s most complete win over a conference foe in several years.
“As good as last week felt and as complete as we played in all three phases, it was the exact opposite today,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “And it’s very disappointing. Our university deserves a better effort than that, and that’s my job to make sure they give that. And we did not today.”
Auburn lost to both an ultra-dominant Georgia and an Ole Miss team that looks destined for double-digit wins this season by a single touchdown at home. New Mexico State, a team that hadn’t played a Power 5 foe all season, cleared those combined margins by itself.
And it was totally deserved.
NMSU doubled Auburn in first downs and nearly doubled it in total yardage. NMSU converted 50% of its third downs, while Auburn only converted 20%. NMSU had four sacks to Auburn’s one, had more tackles for loss and ran for 6 yards per carry while dominating time of possession.
NMSU scored touchdowns on all four of its red-zone trips. Auburn never got there.
Offense and defense, coaches and players, game plan and execution, effort and intensity — all were firmly tilted away from Auburn.
Unlike most of the Tigers’ other losses this season, there was no talent gap. This team just didn’t look prepared to play and never truly recovered from it.
“They just wanted it more than us today,” said tight end Rivaldo Fairweather, who had the only touchdown of the game for an Auburn team that never led. (Simpson and Keionte Scott would later use the exact same phrase.)
Auburn’s three consecutive wins came against a Mississippi State team that has already fired its head coach, a Vanderbilt team that is likely going to finish the season with 10 straight losses and an Arkansas team that will most likely part ways with its head coach.
New Mexico State, meanwhile, had won six straight games and will soon be playing for a Conference USA title. Jerry Kill, who beat Freeze in his final game at Liberty last season, has an Aggies team that looked like every bit of the No. 7 offense in yards per play that it was coming into Saturday. (Of note: Liberty beat NMSU earlier this season, and so did a UMass team that Auburn crushed just a week later.)
Forget the conference affiliation — NMSU looked better than all of the teams the Tigers had just beaten. But that doesn’t excuse a very bad loss like this, not in the slightest.
What NMSU had was a clear plan of attack: Get the ball out of its quarterback’s hands quickly, attack the perimeter and chew the clock as much as possible. It worked to near-perfection.
Auburn never seemed to get into anything that it may have planned in this one, because NMSU dictated how the game was going to be played. That’s a tough look for everyone involved.
“It was just a bizarre game,” linebacker Eugene Asante said. “I think we just came out flat. Never really got in our groove, and when you play college football, you can't be like that.”
Auburn was flat. New Mexico State was fearless.
Now Auburn is going to have to be much, much, much better next week against a red-hot Alabama team in the Iron Bowl to finish the regular season with any sense of on-field momentum.
And, as Freeze said, it’s his job to fix it.
Here are four Observations, some Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night from Auburn’s shocking 31-10 loss to NMSU.
RB Jarquez Hunter (Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
Lost at the line of scrimmage… on offense
A week ago, Auburn seemed to have an advantage on the offensive line and the defensive line against Arkansas. It showed in a hurry, as the Tigers crushed the Razorbacks up front on both sides of the ball.
New Mexico State was playing with more life late in the season, but this wasn’t a team that was built to go toe-to-toe with an SEC roster in the trenches. The size and talent levels, even with Auburn’s roster currently not where it needs to be longterm, were still noticeable.
Auburn’s offensive line reverted to its struggles from the first half of the season. NMSU had four sacks, which is more than it’s had in seven games this year — including each of its last two. Auburn’s offensive line was also flagged for five penalties and had a few more that were declined.
And, once again, Auburn looked like an offense that just doesn’t have what it takes to overcome being stuck behind the chains on a consistent basis.
“Whatever the situation is, you gotta get going at some point,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “You gotta overcome the penalties. If you got 'em, you gotta overcome 'em. And so we didn't do that tonight. You know, if we wanted to be a really good offense, we had to do those things. Number one, you don't shoot yourself in the foot, but if you do, you have to be able to recover.”
Thorne was the rushing leader by default, having to scramble out of danger way too many times. The vast majority of the yardage from the wide receivers came in the fourth quarter. That’s a total team meltdown.
“You're not going to execute if you're not giving great effort,” Freeze said. “So it probably goes hand-in-hand. I thought our receivers ran routes in slow-motion tonight, did not get out of their breaks at the top end. We didn't protect well. There's nothing positive that I can say about tonight.”
Things weren’t much better for the traditional running game. Jarquez Hunter only got eight carries for 27 yards and only had successful gains on three of them. Damari Alston was stacked up at the line of scrimmage on his only touch of the day.
This was Auburn’s worst rushing performance of the season, by far. The Tigers couldn’t sustain drives because of it, setting themselves up for failure against a NMSU offense that is the slowest between snaps of any team in the country.
Auburn’s average distance to-go on third down was 9.6 yards. It didn’t convert anything longer than a third-and-3. As a result, the Tigers only ran 45 plays — their fewest since they ran that exact same amount in the 2016 Iron Bowl.
“We had 15 plays at halftime,” Freeze said. “Of those three possessions, I think we had penalties in every one of them. We never could get in any rhythm, whatsoever, to establish the running game. And then you get behind in the last few possessions. I mean, they just ate the clock up and continued to stay on the field.”
Auburn finished with its worst yards per-play mark since the offense hit rock-bottom against Texas A&M in September. The Tigers had played six games against other SEC teams and hadn’t looked this bad offensively — and that’s a bad sign heading into a game against a talent-laden Alabama defensive front.
(Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
Lost at the line of scrimmage… on defense
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Auburn Observer to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.