Observations: Northwestern 35, Auburn 19

Before the Bryan Harsin era began, the Tigers closed a challenging 2020 season with some familiar problems popping up in another loss.

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WR Elijah Canion (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

What felt like the longest season of Auburn football is officially over. And what feels like the start of a brand-new direction for the program is officially underway.

That’s the overall vibe on this New Year’s Day, as the Tigers ended the 2020 season with a 35-19 loss to a tough and ranked Northwestern team in the Citrus Bowl. Interim head coach Kevin Steele’s shorthanded Tigers rallied from an early two-touchdown deficit but, as the case was in the regular season, couldn’t get over the hump down the stretch.

Now the work really begins for new head coach Bryan Harsin, who was in attendance Friday and even did an interview during the bowl broadcast. But before we get there, here are a few Observations from Auburn’s loss and what they mean for the program moving forward.

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The downfall of the Gus Malzahn era will be the big challenge of the Bryan Harsin era

Why is Gus Malzahn no longer Auburn football’s head coach? The big reason is the lack of offensive success against quality competition in a conference — and sport — that is increasingly based on what you can do on that side of the ball.

How did that happen? It wasn’t a lack of skill position talent. The Tigers have had back-to-back former five-star quarterbacks leading the way. Running back, wide receiver and tight end recruiting hadn’t all been this good in a while.

But Auburn fell behind in a line-of-scrimmage league because it fell behind up front. Recruiting rankings aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to the offensive line because of the challenges in evaluating and the importance of longer development times. Still, Auburn’s recruiting woes up front have been well-documented, and they went a long way in the offensive struggles of the last three seasons.

The Citrus Bowl was just the latest example. Without tackle-breaking freshman phenom Tank Bigsby, who was out due to medical reasons, Auburn couldn’t get anything going on the ground against a Northwestern team that — while having a great defense statistically — gave up 399 rushing yards to Ohio State in its last game. Shaun Shivers and D.J. Williams combined for 15 carries and 31 yards. Auburn went a truly abysmal 0-for-6 on third-and-short.

And while Bo Nix overcame a slow start to post a solid 6.95 yards per pass attempt, he didn’t have much protection during several long stretches of the game. Yes, the Tigers have dealt with injuries up front all throughout the season and didn’t have Brodarious Hamm on Friday. But the inability to give Nix enough time to throw or establish any sort of balance with the running game meant the 2020 season finale was more of the same from Auburn’s offense.

Harsin made a name for himself at Boise State by having an offense that consistently won at the point of attack. The emphasis on the offensive line must continue in recruiting, especially in the wake of what might be another tiny class in that area during this transition. A new scheme could help the Tigers go to the next level offensively, but it can only go so far without major improvements up front.

(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

Finding a pass rush will be another top priority

Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns against Auburn on Friday, which was the most he had against any opponent all season. He also scrambled for a 30-yard touchdown in the third quarter that stopped a run of 13 unanswered points from Auburn.

Auburn didn’t have its most talented defensive back — No. 1 cornerback Roger McCreary — or the experienced Christian Tutt at nickel. But the undermanned secondary could only do so much in coverage, considering how much time it felt like Ramsey had to throw the ball.

The Tigers only sacked Ramsey once, with linebacker Owen Pappoe coming in for the takedown on a well-executed delayed blitz. Northwestern did a solid job of scheming around Auburn’s athletic defensive front, and the Tigers had to change things up in order to keep Ramsey from staying red hot in the second half.

“When they were releasing out late, they were getting guys in close and chipping off the edge,” Steele said. “So it was ‘chip max’ —meaning it looked like max (protect) and then would release out and he was getting the ball out on the mesh routes and the over routes. We changed up a couple of things on that to try to help create with our pass rush, in terms of schematically what we were trying to get done when we got them in passing situations.”

Auburn was only credited with three hurries Friday, and Ramsey was able to complete 68.6 percent of his passes for an average of 8.31 yards per attempt. Northwestern was also 7-for-17 on third downs, including 5-for-10 on anything longer than four yards to go.

Outside of the LSU and Mississippi State games, there were way too many times in 2020 when it felt like opposing quarterbacks had all the time they wanted to throw the ball. The 2020 campaign marked the first and perhaps only time under Steele in which Auburn didn’t have a single player average at least 0.6 sacks per game. Not having a go-to pass rusher haunted the Tigers, especially on the third downs that were a problem for most of the season.

Only time will tell who Harsin has on his defensive staff. However, he prioritized getting after the quarterback at his last stop — Boise State ranked No. 20 and No. 10 in the FBS, respectively, in 2018 and 2019 in sacks per game. Auburn needs to win the line of scrimmage again on offense, and the same goes for the defense whenever quarterbacks drop back to pass.

There are young talents to build around

The Auburn roster could go through a pretty dramatic overhaul this offseason, with the change in coaching staff locally and the change in transfer rules nationally. Still, with several key names out of action Friday, the Citrus Bowl provided some opportunities for younger playmakers to step up.

The big one was Elijah Canion, a freshman wide receiver who hadn’t caught a ball all season and had only seen the field in one regular-season game. Canion had three receptions for 80 yards, including an impressive 57-yard catch-and-run touchdown that got Auburn right back in the game in the third quarter. At 6-foot-4 and boasting some impressive speed, Canion has the look of someone who could make a difference down the line for the Tigers.

“When things like (Canion’s touchdown) happen, it kind of builds that confidence going into next year,” said Big Kat Bryant, who was the lone player interview after the game. “That’s the biggest thing when it comes to this college football thing, just confidence.”

Fellow freshman receivers Kobe Hudson and Ze’Vian Capers showed promise. Defensively, Owen Pappoe led the way and closed what had been an impressive sophomore season from him. On that side of the ball, Ladarius Tennison, Cam Riley, Zykevious Walker, Chris Thompson Jr. and Jeremiah Wright all represented the 2020 class well by recording at least three tackles apiece.

Bigsby’s value to the Auburn offense has already been well-documented and was rather painfully obvious in the bowl game. Seth Williams and Eli Stove could come back if they wanted. (It appears that Anthony Schwartz, who opted out, is going to the NFL.) This will, of course, be a monster offseason for Nix with Dematrius Davis coming into the fold soon. And if experience can help the offensive line, there should be plenty of it in 2021.

On both sides of the ball, Harsin isn’t inheriting a rebuilding project — he’s inheriting a talented football program that wants to go from inconsistently good to consistently great. Now the challenge will be to put the right players in the best spots moving forward.

(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

And that’s… pretty much it

It’s important not to take a lot away from this bowl game, Auburn fans. This was a team missing several of its best players, playing under an interim coaching staff, coming off of just a few short days of practice and heading into what could be a drastically different era.

No one would have been surprised if Auburn didn’t play in a bowl game this season. There was little to gain from the entire experience. And while some Tigers gave good effort for most of the contest, it sounds like motivation still wasn’t high.

“It was tough, me being a senior, you know, wanting to play,” Bryant said. “But there was, like, a lot of guys that had checked out. … It was real, real tough, like definitely, once a lot of guys found out we wasn't having some starters.”

So here’s the final takeaway — the way Auburn played in this game gave some reinforcement to the decision to make the coaching change. The program could use a fresh start, and Harsin will try to provide that in 2021. Remember some of the young players who stepped up because of the absences and look ahead to the future.

Everything else? Wipe it. Auburn football is officially in a new era, and whatever happened in Orlando on Friday wasn’t going to change what happens next.

Quote of the Day

I really like Coach Harsin. But, you know, I ain’t gonna lie. The only thing you gotta do right here is recruit. You know, it’s just plain and simple. But I really think he’s a great guy, a great coach, a great leader. Just the little small talk I had with him — I actually met with him one-on-one this past Monday — I really think he has the right coaching philosophy to lead this team to one day be able to win championships. I really do believe that.

— DE Big Kat Bryant on HC Bryan Harsin

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Up next on The Auburn Observer: Subscribers, look for more Observations, this time from basketball’s matchup against Texas A&M, around this time Saturday evening. That will be followed by a new episode of the podcast, available on all platforms, on Sunday.