Observations: Auburn 31, Vanderbilt 15
Auburn won and covered. It could have been by more. That feels fitting for a rebuilding team that needs one more win to make a bowl.
DT Marcus Harris (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
NASHVILLE — Saturday was a day to look at the big picture for Auburn football.
Two weeks ago, Auburn dropped its fourth straight game. The Tigers had gone 2-13 over their previous 15 games against SEC competition. They had a losing season record and were in make-or-break territory when it came to their bowl chances.
Auburn beat Mississippi State by two touchdowns in a must-win home game. Some of the Tigers’ performance was excellent. Some of it was far from that.
But Auburn ultimately took care of business and got back to .500 overall. Now the Tigers just needed to win one of two road games to put themselves in a great position to clinch bowl eligibility before facing Alabama.
On Saturday, Auburn faced Vanderbilt on the road. Auburn won by two touchdowns. Some of the Tigers’ performance was excellent. Some of it was far from that.
But Auburn ultimately took care of business again — this time, jumping up to 5-4 on the season. The Tigers covered the point spread. Auburn fans greatly outnumbered Vanderbilt fans in the Commodores’ own small, mid-renovation stadium.
Auburn just did what it was supposed to do. That’s a small sign of progress for a team that has spent the last few seasons well under expectations.
“I didn’t sleep a wink last night, truthfully,” Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said after the Tigers’ 31-15 win over Vanderbilt. “Because all I see is them playing Georgia, Missouri here — which are two really good teams — and those games were dog fights well into the third quarter. They had my full attention, I assure you.
“To still win after leaving so many plays and two touchdowns called back and leaving plays out there, I think, does speak that we’re improving. But, obviously, I wish we would play a little better, too.”
Georgia and Missouri — ranked teams who played a fantastic game against each other Saturday — both beat Vanderbilt by 17 points in Nashville this season. (Kentucky did as well.) Auburn only won by 16, which was a result of the Commodores getting a 2-point conversion in the second half instead of kicking the PAT.
And the scoreboard could have easily been more lopsided. Payton Thorne threw a bad pick-six deep inside his own territory to give Vanderbilt one of just two touchdowns all game. Auburn had a surprising rash of drops, including one on what would’ve been an easy deep-ball touchdown.
A penalty on first-and-goal crushed Auburn’s chances at another touchdown. The Tigers also missed out on a potential muffed punt recovery deep in Vanderbilt territory on a controversial kick-catch interference call on Jaylin Simpson. A holding call on the final drive kept Jarquez Hunter from a 200-yard, three-touchdown game. Another holding call wiped out a Brian Battie kickoff that went to the Vanderbilt 30.
“We still left some out there,” Thorne said. “So that's a little bit frustrating, but it's good to be a little bit frustrated after a win. Our defense played outstanding today. It should have been zero for a while there. I gifted them seven.”
Like Mississippi State last week, Vanderbilt never truly threatened to make this a competitive game in the second half, though. That’s because Auburn’s defense was dominant for the vast majority of the action, forcing eight straight punts and only allowing one touchdown drive. The Tigers held the Commodores to an early missed field goal and ended the game with a fourth-down stop and yet another takeaway.
“I feel like we played pretty much lights-out for four quarters,” inside linebacker Cam Riley said.
Imperfect? Absolutely. Frustrating? At times.
Successful? Ultimately, yes. Auburn just needs to win one more to go bowling, which was what Freeze set as the clear goal for the team in the second half of the season.
“I erased all of our themes from the first half of the season, and I put our last five games up and said: ‘The first logical step in our rebuild here is gaining bowl eligibility,’” Freeze said. “…One step closer, but we’ve got some hard games left, too.”
Here are five Observations from Auburn’s 31-15 win over Vanderbilt, along with Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
WR Ja’Varrius Johnson (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
If you’re not efficient, at least be explosive
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.