Film Room: What was wrong with Auburn's pass defense against San Jose State?
Auburn nearly gave up 300 passing yards to a Group of Five team in Week 2. Here's a deep dive into what was hurting the Tigers through the air — and how it can improve.
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
In Week 1, Auburn’s defense allowed FCS opponent Mercer to complete four passes of 15-plus yards and five third-down conversions through the air — including a pair of touchdowns.
Two days after that performance, head coach Bryan Harsin made it clear that he wanted to see improvement from the Tigers on the back end.
“If they're going to put in the ball in the air, we've got to have a chance compete for it,” Harsin said. “I know our guys want to do that, and I believe in our guys: When we have a chance to compete for the ball, we're going to come down with it. So, I want to see our guys play a little bit more.
“We've just got to do a better job. We've got to be in position. We've got to play with great eyes.”
The Week 2 matchup provided an opportunity for the Tigers to show progress with their pass defense against an FBS opponent. San Jose State, led by former Hawaii starting quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, was coming off a Week 1 scare against Portland State in which the Spartans only completed 50% of its passes for 239 yards.
San Jose State put the ball in the air more often last Saturday night against Auburn than it did against Portland State. The Spartans saw a slight decrease in yards per attempt and quarterback rating, but Cordeiro still completed 60% of his attempts for 275 yards — the most the Tigers had allowed to a non-power conference team since the infamous 2015 game against Jacksonville State.
There were several major issues with Auburn during its 24-16, way-too-close-for-comfort win over San Jose State on Saturday night. But the main reason why SJSU was able to get a halftime lead and stay in the game once Auburn improved its own offense was because of the success it found through the air.
San Jose State finished with just 2.7 sack-adjusted rushing yards per attempt. Its running backs combined for just 31 yards on 16 carries. Yet it didn’t matter if Auburn’s defensive front made things one-dimensional — SJSU was still moving the ball downfield, and that only increased after halftime.
“We need to get off the field on third down more, and we gave up some deep balls, too,” linebacker Owen Pappoe said after the game. “So, we’re going to get all that corrected. It’s just little things like guys having bad eyes, using bad leverages, busted coverages.”
Some of Auburn’s pass defense issues against Mercer could be attributed to some newcomers getting into the rotation for the first time. But against San Jose State, Auburn only used seven defensive backs for the entire game — and one of them, safety Cayden Bridges, only played four snaps.
In fact, two of the Tigers’ newest defensive backs — first-time starting nickel Keionte Scott and rotational cornerback D.J. James — were arguably among the top performers for the defense as a whole Saturday night. Auburn’s more experienced players on the back end weren't immune to these problems.
So, what happened to Auburn’s pass defense against San Jose State? Why did the Tigers appear to regress in that area ahead of a rematch with Sean Clifford and Penn State, which had a ton of success against them through the air last season?
In this week’s Film Room, let’s take a special focus on Auburn’s pass defense. San Jose State dropped back to pass 52 times against Auburn, and all of those plays were reviewed and charted for this newsletter.
Now, it’s very important to point out that I am not a football expert by any means — and I personally feel a lot more comfortable sharing my insight when it comes to offense compared to defense. So, don’t take the takeaways in here as the unquestioned truth. I don’t know the calls, assignments or responsibilities for a certain player on a certain play. What I can do, though, is rewatch, chart and try to make the best sense of what its happening.
With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of what we saw from the Tigers’ pass defense in their Week 2 scare.
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