Observations: Auburn 45, Samford 13
It was a mixed bag type of Homecoming win for the Tigers, who saw some much-needed progress and more problem areas.
QB Payton Thorne (Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
The RPO, at its purest form, is all about taking what the defense gives you.
A run-pass option is like its older cousins, the triple option and the zone read. A quarterback reads a key defender and decides what to do with the ball based on what he does. The RPO is unique in that a pass is built into the read instead of just a give or a keep.
The RPO is also a fundamental building block of the offenses from first-year Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery. And that’s been a transition for starting quarterback Payton Thorne, who didn’t run a ton of RPOs at Michigan State.
A week after Auburn didn’t run very many RPOs in a close win at Cal, Thorne came out firing with them Saturday night against FCS opponent Samford. He threw the ball 10 times on the first drive after having just 14 attempts for the whole game last week. He had 25 by the time Auburn went into the locker room at halftime.
“We're going to have to throw the football some, and the way their safeties were playing, they were getting eight in the box really quick,” Freeze said after the game. “A lot of those throws in the first half were truly off the run game. But the read for Payton was to throw it based on the numbers.”
Just take what the defense gives you. For the most part, Thorne did that fairly well Saturday night. He went 24-32 (75%) for 282 yards (8.81 YPA) and had four completions of 30-plus yards.
But he also forced the issue at times. Most notably, he threw interceptions toward well-covered receivers in the end zone twice.
That, combined with a turnover on downs and a muffed punt deep inside Auburn territory, made a game that finished 45-13 on the scoreboard look a lot closer than it truly was. Auburn outgained Samford 562-218 and had its in-state foe doubled up in yards per play (7.2 to 3.6) before the kneeldowns at the end of the game.
A sizable chunk of that advantage came from the legs of Thorne, as he took what the defense gave him repeatedly to the tune of 123 rushing yards and two touchdowns — the biggest performance on the ground for an Auburn quarterback since Nick Marshall against Tennessee in 2013. (He also had the most total yardage for an Auburn player since Marshall’s monster game in the 2014 Iron Bowl.)
“I thought Payton was solid, outside of the one decision on the deep post route (his second interception,” Freeze said. “That was a poor decision. But outside of that, I thought his decision-making was pretty good. I thought he ran when he needed to. We called some good draws with him, and he… looked natural at it.”
For all the positives from Auburn’s performance — including better play out wide and another strong showing from an evolving defense — the Tigers will look back on their homecoming win knowing they’ve got a lot they can improve. The running back struggles and a lack of line of scrimmage dominance won’t be looked upon fondly, and Auburn suffered its fair share of injuries in this one.
And the Tigers will really have to step up now. Next weekend, they travel to face one of the most talent-rich programs in the country, Texas A&M, in a conference opener.
“Get better at everything that we've got,” linebacker Larry Nixon III said. “We've got to get better for SEC play. It's time. It's really time to lock in and win.”
Here are five Observations from Auburn’s 45-13 win over Samford, along with some Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
QB Payton Thorne (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Payton Thorne looked more like the QB Auburn needs
Thorne isn’t Lamar Jackson or Cam Newton, but he is a better runner than some people gave him credit for heading into this season. In his true rushing attempts at Michigan State — taking out sacks and such — Thorne averaged 5.37 yards per carry.
On Saturday night against Samford, Thorne ran the ball 10 times for 124 yards, more than doubling his usual clip at Michigan State. (Yes, it’s Samford, but the Spartans played overmatched opponents, too.) He had a perfect 100% success rate on those runs, and exactly half of his carries went for explosive gains.
“I guess that I'm not that slow,” Thorne said after the game.
Thorne’s volume and efficiency on the ground declined in 2022, and a lot of that had to do with what he described as recurring foot and toe issues. He had a hard time planting and accelerating, so he didn’t really do a lot of running last fall.
This season, Thorne says he’s healthier. It showed Saturday night, as he made heads-up plays to run with the ball — and he created quite a few big moments with his rushing ability. He nearly had three rushing touchdowns, but a replay review showed he stepped out just outside the goal line on a 38-yard run in the third quarter.
Thorne had almost 100 rushing yards in the second half alone, a product of Auburn switching things up with its personnel and play calls.
“At halftime, we changed a couple things that I think helped him with that,” Freeze said. “They were moving around between a 4i and a 5 (technique) a good bit in their odd front. It was a little harder for him to read it. But we got some 12 personnel stuff, and I think it made it easier for him to have to declare which gap he was going to play.”
Some teammates were surprised at Thorne’s big night on the ground, like offensive guard Jeremiah Wright. Others weren’t.
“I knew Payton could run like that,” tight end Rivaldo Fairweather said. “He’s got sneaky speed. I told him he’s going to run this game and when the opportunity strikes, he did it. He’s pretty fast. He looked pretty fast out there.”
Samford allowed nearly 300 yards in both rushing and passing to fellow FCS program Western Carolina last week, so it wasn’t like Thorne carved up a strong defense.
But this tune-up game was more about the process than the result, and Thorne showed throughout the night that he’s capable of being a factor in the run game. That maximizes the potential of an offense that operates a lot out of the RPO and the zone-read foundations, particularly when he can be more accurate with his arm like he was Saturday night.
Auburn knew it needed to show some real improvement on offense after what Freeze called an “awful” showing at Cal. The Tigers leaned on Thorne, deciding not to go back to any sort of rotation with Robby Ashford and putting their backup quarterback in the game only a few times in the second half.
The interceptions — particularly the second one, when Thorne launched a deep ball into double coverage instead of hitting a wide-open Jyaire Shorter underneath for an easy first down — were problematic. But Thorne played solidly outside of that, rewarding the faith his team kept in him after a tough game in California.
“Payton is the type of player to where he’s going to stay the same no matter what,” wide receiver Shane Hooks said. “He never gets too high and never gets too low. He does that in practice every day, so it’s expected.”
RB Damari Alston (Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
The rest of the ground game really struggled
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