Observations: 2023 A-Day Game
On a rainy Saturday, Auburn's running game roared, several freshmen stood out and everybody (mostly) went home happy.
QB Robby Ashford (Jamie Holt/Auburn Athletics)
It’s probably fitting that this particular spring for Auburn football ended the way it did.
Auburn’s offense had cut the defense’s 24-point head start to just three with just a handful of seconds left on a running clock. The new-look A-Day Game was going to come down to one final play in the “third quarter,” thanks to some cold and rainy weather.
On the headsets, new head coach Hugh Freeze gave his coordinators — Philip Montgomery on offense and Ron Roberts on defense — a choice. Should the first-team units play one more down, with the offense going for the win? Or should the Tigers line up for a game-tying field goal?
After long pauses from both coordinators, the decision was made: Go for the tie. Alex McPherson stepped up and knocked the short field goal through, solidifying a 24-24 final score. Everybody gets the winners’ steak dinner instead of the losers’ hot dog meal.
“I like the way it ended,” Freeze said.
Auburn’s first spring in this new era was all about improved vibes. So a McPherson field goal that sent members of both teams sliding into a soaked end zone in celebration was the perfect way to cap 15 practices.
Well, perfect for almost everybody.
“I think they should've let the offense get the touchdown,” running back Jarquez Hunter said afterwards. “I don't like ties. I like getting the win.”
The tie was still a pretty telling one, even in rough weather. Both the offense and the defense had positives they could point to from the spring finale — and they both had areas where they’ve still got a long way to go in terms of improvement.
“I thought it was a solid day — some good things and some not-so-good things, of course,” Freeze said. “But overall, I thought our first spring and the first 15 days that our kids gave us, it was great energy and great effort. I think we took the right step toward building some foundational things that we're gonna have to lean on in order to compete next year in this league.”
As spring ball comes to an end on the Plains, here are four Observations from Auburn’s 2023 A-Day Game, along with some No-Huddle Notes and the Quote of the Day.
Auburn looks like it’s gonna be able to run the dang ball
Even though Freeze said he didn’t want to show much to future opponents, the plan was for Auburn to showcase a new-look passing attack. But nearly an inch of rain fell on Auburn on Saturday, making it nearly impossible to go with that strategy.
“Man, we were really wanting to throw that ball around today,” Freeze said. “And it would've been really ugly with probably a lot of 3-and-outs had we tried to do that.”
Instead, Auburn finished with just 12 passing attempts — and two sacks — and 51 rushing attempts, with 40 of those coming from the running backs.
Hunter set the tone with 27 yards on his first four carries of the game, then he turned things over to the rest of the running back room.
“I know Coach ‘Lac (Cadillac Williams) prides himself in being able to put anybody in to do the job and getting the job done,” Hunter said. “It was just to see everybody go out there and compete.”
Damari Alston broke off a 20-yard run to put the Tigers on the doorstep of their first touchdown. He finished with 43 yards on just five carries for a team-best 8.6 yards per carry. Speedy transfer Brian Battie had 27 yards on four carries, popping an impressive 18-yard run midway through the scrimmage.
Sean Jackson led all Tigers with 13 carries for 77 yards. Walk-on Justin Jones was hard to tackle late, finishing with 11 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown. All five of the Tigers’ running backs had at least one explosive carry, and quarterback Robby Ashford picked up three first downs and another touchdown with his legs.
“I've kind of said the last few weeks that I thought two of the rooms that I felt like we were pretty solid in was the tight end room and the running back room,” Freeze said. “I think that kind of showed today.”
Additionally, Auburn’s revamped offensive line impressed with the way it created lanes for the backs to pick up a combined 280 yards on 51 carries (5.5 per touch). Freeze says he is “cautiously optimistic” that Auburn will have “a decent offensive line,” and it was pretty telling that the Tigers weren’t having to break a lot of tackles at or before the line of scrimmage in order to create explosive plays.
“I feel really excited about (the offensive line),” new first-team center Avery Jones said. “The whole group feels excited about the season coming up. We all feel like we’re on the same page and stuff. We’re all making calls and working together. As an o-line, you’ve got to be on the same page to be successful.”
With Hunter looking ready to take over as the new feature back on the Plains and a room full of competitors that should only get deeper this summer with the arrival of 4-star freshman Jeremiah Cobb, Auburn should feel good about its running game in 2023. The clear-cut improvement of the offensive line only adds to that.
Of course, any good performance in a team scrimmage can be looked at as a negative for the other side of the ball. Auburn ranked inside the 100s nationally last season in yards allowed per carry, and Freeze feels like there’s a real need to improve in run defense moving forward.
“I thought we're running the ball fairly well and getting the dirty yards from our backs,” Freeze said. “Our quarterback's helping in the run game. So I'd have to say I think we improved that o-line some, and they looked pretty decent today.
“I think after today what's on my mind is we've got to stop the run. You can't win in this league if you can't stop the run, and we didn't stop it very well today on some drives. I would say that's the two things that are on my mind, both good and bad, right now.”
QB Robby Ashford (Auburn Football/Twitter)