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Auburn football: Too much blame on Payton Thorne?

Glenn Sattell | 21 hours ago

5–6 minutes

We’ve been putting the bulk of the blame on Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne for the Tigers’ inability to move the ball through the air. They went into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt with the worst passing game in the SEC by far, averaging just 160.9 passing yards per game, 119th in the nation.

Yes, Auburn’s passing game for most of the season has been bad — really bad. Thorne, who has supplanted Robby Ashford as Auburn’s starting quarterback, has received most of the blame for it, or lack of it. Thorne entered Saturday averaging 134.4 passing yards per game, which ranked 13th in the SEC.

The junior transfer from Michigan State has been having a tough time getting on the same page with his receivers. But whose fault is that? Who’s not doing his job? Is it Thorne’s shortcomings?

It’s hard to imagine that a quarterback who threw for 3,232 yards and 27 TDs in 2021 for Michigan State, and another 2,679 with 19 TDs a year ago, would forget how to play the position. He had 5 300-yard games for the Spartans, and he threw for 4 TDs in 4 games.

But we’ve seen the numbers steadily rise for Thorne since he threw for only 44 yards in the SEC opener against Texas A&M. Since then, the number has gone to 82 against Georgia, 102 against LSU and 100 vs. Ole Miss.

We caught a glimpse of that guy from Michigan State the following week, when he completed 20 of 26 passes for 230 yards and a season-high 3 TD passes in Auburn’s 27-13 victory over Mississippi State. He recorded a season-high 189.3 QB rating as the Tigers snapped a 4-game skid.

He seemed much more relaxed knowing he had the reins of the offense and wasn’t going to share time with Ashford. He was able to relax and play his game. The game plan looked more geared toward his game. Rolling him out and moving in the pocket seemed to work more toward his abilities and comfort zone as well.

Thorne didn’t top that in a 31-15 triumph at Vanderbilt — mainly because of the dropped passes (much more on that in a moment) — but he did finish with 194 yards and 2 TDs on 17-of-27 passing (with 1 pick).

So pointing the finger at Thorne for Auburn’s inability to move the football through the air may have been a bit misguided. It seems to be a more systemic problem than any individual.

The offensive line hasn’t been the greatest. After the first 8 games, Auburn had allowed 20 sacks. Among SEC teams, only 4 offensive lines had allowed more (Florida with 23, Arkansas with 31, South Carolina with 34 and Alabama with 35).

But even more egregious are the drops by the wide receivers, not to mention their inability to separate from defenders. That was certainly the culprit against a bad Vanderbilt pass defense. The Commodores entered the game ranked 13th in the SEC against the pass, allowing 262.3 yards per game.

Thorne put the ball on the hands of his receivers on several occasions, only to have it slip through their fingertips. In addition, he was visibly upset on other occasions when it appeared the receivers ran the wrong or a bad route.

You won’t find any Auburn receivers among the top 20 in the SEC. The Tigers’ top 2 receivers, Jay Fair and Rivaldo Fairweather, entered the game ranked tied for 24th in the conference in receptions (25 each), and neither was among the top 30 in the league in receiving yards.

Both dropped passes Saturday. Easy ones.

Against teams at the bottom rung of the SEC like Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, that’s not a big problem. But if Auburn is going to improve on its 5-4 record (2-4 in the SEC), finish strong against Arkansas and Alabama and build for the future, this certainly needs to be cleaned up.

Do so — and combine that with a running game that is picking up with the explosive play of Jarquez Hunter, who had a career day (183 yards and 2 TDs on 19 carries) — and the Tigers could very well close the 2023 season with quite an impressive win streak.


Glenn Sattell

Glenn Sattell is an award-winning freelance writer for Saturday Down South.

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Auburn opens as slight underdog in road finale at Arkansas

Nathan King
~2 minutes

Auburn's run of being an SEC favorite ends at two consecutive games.

Looking to continue a mini winning streak in the conference after defeating Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, Auburn will head to Arkansas for its final road game of the season as a slight underdog. For next Saturday's SEC West clash, the Razorbacks opened as 2.5-point favorites at FanDuel and 3-point favorites at DraftKings on Sunday afternoon.

After being an underdog in its four straight SEC losses, Auburn (5-4, 2-4 SEC) has been favored in each of its last two games and covered the spread in both — beating Mississippi State 27-13 (-6.5) and Vanderbilt 31-15 (-12.5).

Despite a 1-5 record in conference play, Arkansas is 4-2 against the spread against SEC opponents this season. Its six losses this year have come by 7 points, 3 points, 12 points, 7 points, 3 points and 4 points.

In danger of losing seven straight games, the Hogs won a thrilling overtime contest at Florida on Saturday afternoon to snap its losing streak. KJ Jefferson threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Tyrone Broden to give Sam Pittman's team (3-6, 1-5 SEC) a 36-33 win in OT — and some much-needed life in what looked to be a lost season for the program.

Before last year's 41-27 defeat in Jordan-Hare Stadium — which saw Bryan Harsin fired two days later — Auburn had won six straight over Arkansas, the longest streak for either team in the series' history.

Arkansas plays its final three games at home and will be looking to make a late run at bowl eligibility, hosting Auburn, FIU and Missouri to close the year. The Tigers finish the regular season with New Mexico State and Alabama both in Jordan-Hare Stadium. 

Kickoff in Fayetteville is set for 3 p.m. CST on SEC Network.

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Pass rush steps up in win over Vanderbilt

Jason Caldwell
~3 minutes

One of the biggest issues for the Auburn Tigers throughout the 2023 season has been a lack of playmaking ability from the front four on defense, forcing Ron Roberts and his staff to dial up more and more blitzes and put the secondary in one-on-one situations. In Saturday’s win over the Vanderbilt Commodores, coach Jeremy Garrett’s group played perhaps its best game of the season in the 31-15 victory.

Playing perhaps the best game of his career with a sack and two tackles for a loss, veteran Zykeivous Walker said it was the type of game he and his teammates have been looking for this season.

“It was very fun,” Walker said. “Just seeing different guys going out there and doing their job, flying around the football and attacking the football — it was great. We were very successful tonight. Whenever one person went out, the next person went in. The level didn't drop at all. I think we did what we needed to do.”

Entering the game with just 16 sacks in eight games, Auburn got after Vanderbilt’s quarterbacks with five sacks and numerous other pressures. That played a big part in the Tigers completely shutting down the Commodores for much of Saturday’s game. Senior safety Jaylin Simpson said it was the type of performance this defense has been waiting for from the big guys up front.

Yeah, that was crazy,” Simpson said. “They were in their bag tonight. But that’s what we always want. That’s what they can do. They just need to show up and do it from here on out, really. But that was reall good to see those guys go out there and play.”

It wasn’t just the front that made plays in the Vanderbilt backfield as linebackers Eugene Asante, Austin Keys and Cam Riley combined for two and a half sacks on the night. Riley said it came down to just executing the plan and being relentless.

“Just a lot of stunts up front,” he said. “Just confusing the o-line and sending different blitzes. It’s hard for the o-line to pick up different things up front. Just getting to the quarterback and making plays.”

Picking up a huge win and one step closer to bowl eligibility, Walker said the defensive line knew it was going to be on them to rush the passer because of Vanderbilt’s talented wide receivers outside and their ability to make plays down the field. That was the plan and they executed it to help the defense to perhaps its best game of the season.

“Yeah, just get after it,” Walker said. “Don't play around with them. Just attack them. Go ahead and get a win and get up out of here.”

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Auburn's defense 'survived the script' vs. Vanderbilt. What's that mean?

Published: Nov. 05, 2023, 9:08 a.m.

5–7 minutes

It’s no secret most teams open a game with a script of offensive plays. And more times than not, that script means throwing everything but the kitchen sink at an opposing defense.

“The stuff you’ve been studying? They not going to run that,” said Auburn veteran defensive back Jaylin Simpson. “They going to run something completely different.”

And Auburn’s defensive coaching staff emphasizes the script – or better yet, surviving the script.

Vanderbilt’s offense – still without starting quarterback AJ Swann – came out swinging Saturday afternoon in Nashville as backup quarterback Ken Seals helped pilot a quick, 40-yard drive on nine plays that put the Auburn defense on its heels.

Seals completed four straight passes in the opening drive, while the Commodores dialed up three run plays and averaged 6.6 yards per carry.

The Vanderbilt offense was moving quick, and it was making it look easy against Auburn’s defense.

But the Tigers’ defense did what it does best – it bent, but never broke. Or, as head coach Hugh Freeze puts it, they “bowed their neck.”

The Commodores went on to settle for a 43-yard field goal try, only for it to sail wide right to keep the game scoreless with just over 10 minutes to play in the first quarter.

The Auburn defense had survived the script.

“Once we get through the script, we’ve pretty much got what we’re doing,” said Auburn defensive back DJ James. “And we’ll just adjust on the sideline.”

And whatever adjustments that needed to be made against the Commodores’ offense, the Tigers made them.

Following Vanderbilt’s field goal attempt to end its first drive, the Commodores were forced to punt on their next eight drives in a row. And of those eight drives, six of them were three-and-outs.

When asked the success of Auburn’s defense on third down, Simpson couldn’t believe he and the Tigers kept the ‘Dores from converting a third down for as long as they did. But he was awfully impressed with himself and his teammates when he found out.

“That’s elite,” Simpson said. “That’s elite.”

Through the course of those eight consecutive drives, Auburn allowed Vanderbilt to tally just 50 yards of offense, meaning the Commodores were held to an average of just 6.25 yards per possession after their first drive and up until their third drive of the third quarter.

Vanderbilt finally found a bit of offensive success later in the third quarter on a four-play, 44-yard drive that was bolstered by a pair of big pass plays from Seals – one for 24 yards and another for a 30-yard touchdown to Junior Sherrill.

“We kind of looked like we were asleep at the wheel a little bit on that drive,” Freeze said. “But other than that, I mean, I tell you, Marcus Harris and Keionte (Scott) and those guys, they take it – it’s personal to them that they play well and that they hold each other to that standard.”

Auburn was successful in getting to the backfield Saturday afternoon.

With Zykeivous Walker leading the way with a pair of tackles for a loss, the Tigers’ defense tallied nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage, five sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries.

“They was in their bag tonight. But that’s what we always want. That’s what they can do,” Simpson said of the guys along the defensive front. “They just need to show up and do it from here on out, really.”

Meanwhile, Auburn’s secondary held up on its end of the bargain on Saturday.

James led the Tigers’ tackling efforts against the Commodores with seven tackles – of which one came behind the line of scrimmage.

“Seven tackles for D.J. is pretty impressive cause he’s not one… he’s not a tackling machine, typically,” Freeze said.

With the help of senior defensive back Nehemiah Pritchett, Auburn was able to even Saturday’s turnover battle as Pritchett intercepted Seals late in the game, giving Pritchett his first pick of the season.

And with Pritchett’s interception, all that’s left is to help Keionte Scott get an interception of his own, Simpson says.

“We got one more. Keionte gotta get a pick and then that’s the whole starting backend right there,” Simpson said. “We got an incredible backend, man. I feel like we’re the best in the world, best in the SEC.”

With Saturday’s 31-15 win over Vanderbilt, the Auburn defense has held all but one of its SEC opponents below their current scoring average, with the exception being LSU.

Heading into Saturday, the Commodores were averaging 25.4 points per game and the Tigers’ defense held them to just eight points – a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Vanderbilt’s first score of the day came via a pick-six thrown by Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne.

And like any game, Saturday’s success started with step one: surviving the script.

“We survived that, man,” Simpson said. “We haven’t been starting off too hot almost every game, but we survive that script and I feel like nobody can mess with us. That plays a big role.”

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‘It almost felt like a home game:’ team praises fans after crucial road victory over Vanderbilt

5–6 minutes

The stands of FirstBank Stadium, sat in the middle of Vanderbilt University, were filled with orange and blue Saturday afternoon as Auburn fans took over the Commodores’ stadium to witness Auburn’s 31-15 defeat over Vanderbilt.

Players and coaches of Auburn’s football team did not let the effort of the Auburn faithful go unnoticed – praising them after the game.

“I just think our fans are incredible,” said head coach Hugh Freeze. “When we got off the bus, the Tiger Walk was packed, and then you run out and I literally thought the stands behind us was pretty much all Auburn and there was quite a few orange on the other side… I’m certainly not the one to decide what percentage was Auburn, but it did not feel like we were in a typical road game.”

In front of thousands of Auburn fans, the Tigers earned their second straight SEC win after starting the season 0-4. The wins marked the first time Auburn has won back-to-back SEC games since defeating Arkansas and Ole Miss in October 2021.

Freeze wasn’t the only one who acknowledged that plenty of Auburn fans were in attendance. Safety Jaylin Simpson, who has plenty of experience playing on the road as he’s in his fifth season on the Plains, backed up Freeze’s praise.

“It felt kind of like a home game or like a bowl game atmosphere anyway, but it was real big,” Simpson said. “We had to come get this one. I mean, we already know Vandy wasn’t the best team, but it’s still an SEC opponent. So, you gotta go out there and play four quarters.”

After totaling six tackles, Simpson now sits at 28 tackles on the season with four interceptions and one fumble recovery.

Running back Jarquez Hunter had statistically the best game of his career Saturday night, setting a career-high 183 yards rushing while also scoring two touchdowns. Both of his touchdowns came in the first quarter and were runs of 56 yards or more.

Now in his third season on the Plains, Hunter wasn’t surprised by the support he and his teammates received.

“That was great support,” Hunter said. “I mean, we had more fans than them. Auburn fans always gonna show up and support, and I love it.”

Hunter has now recorded back-to-back games of 100 yards rushing or more. After rushing for just 218 yards over Auburn’s first six games of the season, the Mississippi native now sits at 636 yards rushing and seven touchdowns with an additional 94 yards receiving.

Now sitting at 5-4 overall with Arkansas, New Mexico State and Alabama left on the schedule, Auburn needs just one more win to become bowl eligible. For Freeze, preseason goals are never something he’s implemented, but he made an exception before he started his first season at Auburn.

“The first logical step in our rebuild here is gaining bowl eligibility, which we’ve done every year I’ve taken over a program in the first year whether it was Arkansas State, Ole Miss or Liberty,” Freeze said.

Auburn failed to make a bowl game last season – going 5-7 under former head coach Bryan Harsin and interim head coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams” – but has a shot to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2021 and win a bowl game since 2018.

“We’ve got to learn from [mistakes], but man, thrilled to win a second consecutive SEC game, particularly on the road and get us one step closer to being bowl eligible,” Freeze said.

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Jacob Waters | Sports Editor

Jacob Waters is a senior majoring in journalism. From Leeds, Alabama, he started with The Plainsman in August, 2021.

Twitter: @JacobWaters_

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Hugh Freeze says he ‘didn’t sleep at all’ ahead of tough Vanderbilt game

Mark Kern | 1 day ago

3–4 minutes

Auburn picked up its first SEC win under Hugh Freeze last week, and the Tigers built off that and beat Vanderbilt on Saturday, 31-15.

The ground game was huge for the Tigers, as Jarquez Hunter rushed the ball 19 times for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns. With the win, the Tigers are now 5-4, and only one game away from being bowl eligible.

After the game, coach Huge Freeze talked about his running back’s performance, while also talking about how penalties and mistakes made the game closer than it should have been.

Auburn HC Hugh Freeze on the defense: "Marcus Harris and Keionte Scott and those guys, it's personal to them that they play well and they hold each other to that standard."

Freeze said Harris told him after Vanderbilt's touchdown drive "that won't happen again"

it didn't

— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) November 4, 2023

Hugh Freeze says he didn't sleep at all last night because of this matchup: "All I see is them playing Georgia and Missouri here, and those games were dogfights all the way into the third quarter. (Vanderbilt) had my full attention, I promise you."

— Nathan King (@NathanKing247) November 4, 2023

Hugh Freeze loved Jarquez Hunter's patience today, saying, "I said, 'Cadillac, that's as patient as I've seen him on that inside zone."

— Justin Hokanson (@_JHokanson) November 4, 2023

Hugh Freeze says "without the penalties and the drops, the game is out of hand."

He's right. Auburn's self-inflicted wounds made this game closer than it should have been.

— Justin Hokanson (@_JHokanson) November 4, 2023

It has been an up and down year for the Tigers in Freeze’s first year, but making a bowl game would be a step in the right direction. Auburn won its first 3 games of the year, but lost 4 consecutive games to start SEC play. The Tigers were very competitive against No. 2 Georgia and No. 10 Ole Miss, losing both games by one touchdown.

Up next for Auburn is a game against an Arkansas team that ended a 6-game losing streak as the Razorbacks beat Florida 39-36. Last year when these teams played, Arkansas won 41-27 at Auburn.

Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET and the game will be aired on the SEC Network.

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Auburn's defensive PFF grades against Vanderbilt

Zac Blackerby
~2 minutes

Here's how Auburn's 22 defenders graded out via PFF in the win against Vanderbilt.

The Auburn defense only allowed one score against the Vanderbilt offense.

Auburn's defensive front held its own and the Tigers were able to limit any substantial passing threat from the Commodores.

The Tigers played 22 players on defense in Saturday's win against Vanderbilt. Nehemiah Pritchett played in 61 of Auburn's 64 defensive snaps according to PFF. Fellow defensive backs Keionte Scott (59 snaps) and Jaylin Simpson (56 snaps) were the other defenders to play over 50 snaps on defense.

Let's take a look at Auburn's defensive PFF grades from the win against Vanderbilt.

1. LB Austin Keys - 90.5
2. CB DJ James - 87.8
3. DL Jayson Jones - 80.7
4. DL Zykeivous Walker - 77.4
5. CB Nehemiah Pritchett - 76.7
6. DL Lawrence Johnson - 76.0
7. JACK Jalen McLeod - 73.6
7. DL Marcus Harris - 73.6
9. JACK Elijah McAllister - 71.4
10. LBEugene Asante - 70.2
11. DE Keldric Faulk - 68.6
12. DB Kayin Lee - 66.3
13. DB Jaylin Simpson - 65.4
14. DB Caleb Wooden - 63.8
15. DB Keionte Scott - 63.0
16. DB Champ Anthony - 62.3
17. DB Colton Hood - 62.0
18. LB Cam Riley - 61.9
19. DL Justin Rogers - 61.6
20. DB Zion Puckett - 57.6
21. LB Larry Nixon - 56.0
22. DB Donovan Kaufman - 47.9

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Despite hiccups Thorne feels on the same page in Auburn passing game

Nathan King
12–16 minutes

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Thorne had his best road performance of the season against Vandy

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — For many offenses, Saturday’s passing performance at Vanderbilt wouldn’t have been worth noting. Payton Thorne completed just over 60 percent of his passes, with under 200 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

But for Thorne, it was his best showing away from home all season, as the Tigers looked to build upon some long-awaited playmaking through the air.

Despite a case of the drops for receivers and tight ends alike, Thorne looked comfortable on the road for the first time all year in a 31-15 at Vanderbilt. Entering the matchup, Thorne was just 17-of-49 passing in three road games, and he hadn’t accounted for a touchdown away from Jordan-Hare Stadium since the win at Cal in Week 2.

It was by no means a perfect performance — a pick-six from Thorne’s own 4-yard line is an unsightly blemish — but the Michigan State transfer QB felt there were strides made for what was, just a couple weeks ago, the SEC’s most inefficient passing attack.

“I feel like we touched a lot of different areas of the passing game today,” Thorne said postgame. “Got a couple RPOs in there, got a couple movement throws, just with spacing stuff, and then I took a couple shots. We still left some out there. So that's a little bit frustrating, but it's good to be a little bit frustrated after a win.”

Thorne hit a lull along with the rest of the offense in the first half, when the Tigers punted four times, and threw the pick-six that chipped the early 14-0 lead generated by two long Jarquez Hunter touchdowns.

The interception was on Thorne’s third progression, he said, on a third-and-7 from his own 4-yard line. Hugh Freeze doesn’t like throwing the football from deep in his own territory, and Thorne’s poor decision showed why. It was obviously a throw Thorne wishes he could have back, as he explained he didn’t see the defender behind Fairweather when he let the ball go.

“Then I saw Rivaldo out there and I thought he was wide-open,” Thorne said. “I didn’t rifle it in there because I thought he was wide-open. So I looked out there and thought he’s going to catch it and get a first down. And until the ball got to him, I was great, and then the dude came out of nowhere and it caught me off guard. I think it was a D-end that dropped (into coverage), but I don’t know for 100 percent. That’s what I was told on the sideline. That was a tough one.”

Auburn was tagged with five drops in the game, including what would have been a 59-yard touchdown in the second quarter to Omari Kelly, who was streaking behind the defense. There were a couple other close calls, too, when Thorne looked deep for Camden Brown, who looked to have an opportunity to rise up for the catch, and when Tyler Fromm was well covered on a short pass but still got both hands on the ball.

Freeze wasn’t overly pleased with the protection for Thorne, either, as the quarterback was sacked twice. Some of that fell on Thorne’s shoulders, though, as the pre-snap identification of pressure at the line of scrimmage was lacking in the first half.

“We didn’t protect extremely well, but some of that was Payton and (running) backs,” Freeze said. “We went the whole first half and never redirected the protection to the boundary. … We should’ve got that, and we fixed that at halftime. The back totally blew a protection one time, so it’s not always the O-line. But starting the third quarter, we protected very well because we ripped off two touchdowns pretty quick, so they played solid.”

Freeze and Thorne both said they felt those issues were remedied at halftime, after which Thorne went 7-of-10 for 122 yards and two touchdowns. All three of his incompletions after halftime were drops.

Thorne began getting into a rhythm right before the half when he went 3-of-4 for 34 yards to lead Auburn on a field-goal drive — though the incompletion was a dropped interception by De’Rickey Wright in the end zone on third and goal.

Out of halftime, Thorne moved the chains on a third-and-4 by drawing a pass-interference call on Rivaldo Fairweather. The next play, he hooked up with his tight end for a 53-yard touchdown.

Thorne also had a couple other explosive throws — a 23-yard completion to Fair on that field-goal drive before halftime, and a 39-yard catch-and-run in the third to Ja'Varrius Johnson to set up Thorne’s second touchdown pass in the third quarter — a toss sweep to Jeremiah Cobb from 5 yards out.

“It gives our quarterback confidence in our receivers and just the whole offense,” Fairweather said of being able to push the ball down the field. “It shows us we have the ability to take shots down the field and make plays. It just starts in practice. We've been practicing all week, just saying that we've gotta take shots and we've gotta make big plays for our team. We just showed up big today.”

Thanks to Fairweather’s touchdown, Saturday was only the second game in the last 20 years in which Auburn had three scores cover at least 50 yards apiece.

“You want to get explosives on the ground and through the air,” Thorne said. “To do it both ways and be two-dimensional on offense is great. … It's good, and we've got to continue to build on that.”

For Thorne, it was the first game of the entire season where backup QB Robby Ashford was never subbed in. The Tigers’ previously frequent quarterback rotation screeched to a halt last week in the win over Mississippi State, then was eliminated from the game plan completely on Saturday.

“I feel like we’re on the same page right now,” Thorne said when asked how he feels about the discontinuation of the quarterback shuffle. “It helps with rhythm and being able to just know that you’re going to be out there I guess is the biggest thing. Just keep rolling, and I’m going to keep trying to put my best foot forward no matter what.”

So what to make of Thorne’s outing? With a few less drops, he would have had another crisp and efficient performance. But Vanderbilt also dropped a point-blank interception in the end zone.

All Thorne and the Tigers know is that the QB is growing in confidence within the offense. They hope that’s the No. 1 thing that matters.

“We just started kind of slow (this season),” Fariweather said. “But, now, our quarterback, Payton, he's very confident out there. He trusts us to make the plays out there. Now we've got it going.”

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Jason Caldwells View From The Field Tigers getting better

Jason Caldwell

7–9 minutes

Auburn football beat Vanderbilt on Saturday,

Taking care of business

That’s it. That’s what this game and really this season has always been about. This is a roster with its share of limitations on both sides of the ball, but winning the games you should win and grabbing a few of the toss-up games was always going to be what I thought was possible for this team. Could you steal one along the way? They had some opportunities for that, but in the end it didn’t happen.

With Mississippi State and Vanderbilt up following a four-team gauntlet, Auburn had to take care of business and they did just that. Saturday in Nashville was particularly impressive because it happened despite several missed opportunities in every area. If you had told me that Auburn would throw a pick six, drop one sure touchdown pass and maybe a second, drop at least four more passes and not recover either of a pair of muffed punts, it’s a game I would have said the Tigers lost. 

Not only was that not the case, but the game was never seriously in doubt. That’s a sign of growth for this team and for the program in year one under Hugh Freeze. The issues for this team won’t get solved between now and the end of the season. The roster is what it is, but the last two weeks we have seen a team that looks like it’s moving in the right direction. 

Offense making moves

I mentioned the plays that weren’t made on offense, but the Tigers topped the 30-point mark against a Power 5 team for the first time this season and it could have easily been 10-14 points more with just a couple of plays. With Jarquez Hunter running well behind an offensive line that continues to improve, the Tigers had 230 yards on the ground. Even with drops that conservatively cost Payton Thorne 75 or more yards, he completed 17-27 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns with the one interception and another ill-advised throw that could have been picked. 

While it was just a horrible game for Auburn’s receivers and even the normally sure-handed Rivaldo Fairweather, when the Tigers needed to make a play in the passing game they came through. That’s another positive for a group that just needs to continue to build confidence. The tempo is the great equalizer and if they can continue to have success on first down and make the plays that are in front of them, this Auburn offense can give the Tigers a chance to win the rest of the way.

Defense gets it done

Vanderbilt isn’t LSU or Alabama or Georgia on offense, but that’s not a bad group that Vanderbilt put on the field Saturday. After three quarters, the Commodores had run 40 plays on offense for a total of just 149 yards. That’s a strong outing for coach Ron Roberts’ defense as they continue to just attack every game and get the job done.

On Saturday it was done with the front four playing their best game of the season. The Tigers had five sacks and nine tackles for a loss with veteran Zykeivous Walker having what is probably the best game of his career with a sack and two tackles for a loss.

If there was one thing to take away from Saturday’s game it was the improvement from Auburn’s defensive line and the ability to create plays. That’s something that would be a massive development if it continues the rest of the regular season.

Home sweet home

It wasn’t Jordan-Hare Stadium. Actually, it was a complete construction zone that really had no business hosting a football game on Saturday, but for a few hours Auburn fans turned Vanderbilt’s stadium into a home field advantage. While the crowd was listed at 28,500, in reality it was probably closer to 25,000 with probably 17,000 of those Auburn fans. It made a huge impact and it’s something that made the newcomers to this program leave in awe about what they saw. Auburn fans continue to make an impact on this program in a positive way and the coaches and players feel it.

Statistics, scoring plays and notes from Auburn's win at Vanderbilt

Offense, defense, how they scored and notes.

Statistics, scoring plays and notes from Auburn's 31-15 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville.


Passing Payton Thorne 17-27-1, 194 yards, 2 TD.

Rushing: Jarquez Hunter 19-183-2; Payton Thorne 12-40-0; Damari Alston 2-8-0; Brian Battie 2-3-0; Jeremiah Cobb 1-(minus) 1-0.

Receiving: Ja’Varrius Johnson 3-62-0; Rivaldo Fairweather 2-30-0; Camden Brown 3-25-0; Jay Fair 3-18-0; Caleb Burton 1-16-0; Brandon Frazier 1-8-0; Jeremiah Cobb 1-5-1; Jarquez Hunter 2-3-0; Malcolm Jonson Jr. 1-(minus) 5, 0.

Defense: D.J. James 7 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU; Jaylin Simpson 5 tackles, 1 PBU; Eugene Asanta 5 tackles, 1 TFL; Zykeivous Walker 5 tackles, 2 TFL; Marcus Harris 4 tackles. 0.5 sacks, 0.5 TFL; Keionte Scott 3 tackles, 1 PBU; Austin Keys 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL; Jalen McLeon 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL; Lawrence Johnson 3 tackles, 1 TFL; Nehemiah Pritchett 2 tackles, INT; Elijah McAllister 2 tackles; Kayin Lee 1 tackle; Zion Puckett 1 tackle; Caleb Wooden 1 tackle; Cam Riley 1 tackle, 0.5 sacks, 0.5 TFL; Justin Rogers 1 tackle.


Passing: Ken Seals 16-29-1, 160 yards, 1 TD; Walter Taylor 1-3-0, 6 yards, 1 TD.

Rushing: Sedrick Alexander 9-40-0; AJ Newberry 4-26-0; Ken Seals 11-20-0, Junior Sherrill 1-11-0; Jayden McGowan 1-3-0; Walter Taylor 2-0-0; Chase Gillespie 2-0-0.

Receiving: Will Sheppard 4-43, 0 TD; London Humphries 2-30, 0 TD; Junior Sherrill 1-30, 1 TD; Kyle Logan 2-23, 0 TD; Justin Ball 1-17-0; Jayden McGowan 1-17-0.

Defense: Langston Patterson 12 tackles, 1.5 TFL; De’Rickey Wright 6 tackles; Nate Clifton 6 tackles; Jeffrey Ugochukwu 6 tackles, 1 TFL; Nate Clifton 6 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack; Jaylen Mahoney 3 tackles; John House 3 tackles; Christian James 3 tackles; Devin Lee 3 tackles.



10:00: Hunter 67-yard run (McPherson kick), 2 plays, 75 yards, 0:28. Auburn 7, Vanderbilt 0.

3:01: Hunter 56-yard run (McPherson kick), 5 plays, 79 yards, 1:19. Auburn 14, Vanderbilt 0.


12:15: Cowan 5-yard interception return (Bocila kick). Auburn 14, Vanderbilt 7.

0:20: McPherson 32-yard field goal, 11 plays, 31 yards, 4:02. Auburn 17, Vanderbilt 7.


13:36: Fairweather 53-yard pass from Thorne (McPherson kick), 3 plays, 75 yards, 1:16. Auburn 24, Vanderbilt 7.

9:44: Cobb 5-yard pass from Thorne (McPherson kick), 7 plays, 64 yards, 2:13. Auburn 31, Vanderbilt 7.

2:43: Sherrill 30-yard pass from Seals (Junior rush), 4 plays, 44 yards, 2:34. Auburn 31, Vanderbilt 15.


* Auburn broke an eight-game SEC road losing streak.

* Alex McPherson has made 15 consecutive field goals dating back to last season.

* Quarterback Payton Thorne played every offensive snap for the first time this season.

* Jarquez Hunter is No. 22 on Auburn’s all-time list with 1,916 career yards.

* Hunter’s 67-yard run on the second play of Auburn’s first possession was the longest of the season.

* Auburn has allowed just four third-down conversion in 26 chances.

* Auburn’s defense forced three-and-outs on six of Vanderbilt’s 13 possessions.

* Auburn’s defense has held five opponents to two or fewer touchdowns.

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The Auburn rebuild’s next step is bowl eligibility. Hugh Freeze is almost there.

Published: Nov. 04, 2023, 8:04 p.m.

5–6 minutes

Hugh Freeze addresses the media following Auburn's 31-15 win over Vanderbilt

Back on the upslope of a streak-filled season, Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze made a point to greet the Auburn fans in Nashville. This didn’t feel like a typical road game, he said, after Auburn’s 31-15 win over Vanderbilt. The stadium was full of nearly Auburn fans who just wanted something to be hopeful for.

That hope is going to start small, and it centers on what Auburn can do in year one under its new head coach: get to a bowl game. Freeze said he isn’t a man who is big on long-term goal setting, but this one is something he’s paying attention to.

Auburn’s bowl eligibility hopes were teetering after four consecutive losses. It wasn’t that Auburn lost — it was favored to lose all four of those games — but how it lost with ineffective offense.

It then came back and won two games it was favored to win. And again, it was the way they won that stood out. The offense worked. The Auburn fans who serenaded Freeze in a takeover of their opponent’s stadium saw that. And they certainly are thinking of a December trip.

“It would mean a lot,” cornerback D.J. James said of chasing a sixth win. “Everybody’s working toward it, everybody wants it -- and you can see it. From an offensive and defensive standpoint, everybody wants it.”

Auburn isn’t quite there yet. The win Saturday evening in Nashville was just the fifth win. It takes six to go bowling. With three remaining games — at Arkansas next week then two straight home games against New Mexico State and Alabama — Auburn knows it has a real chance to get a sixth win.

And while the message around the team is taking each week and each game one at a time, it would be wrong to stay the prospect of a bowl game — and the extra practices that come with it — isn’t a topic of conversation around the Auburn football building.

“I did kind of go away and I made it clear that is a goal of ours in Year 1,” Freeze said. “One step closer, but we’ve got some hard games left, too.”

What Freeze went away from was his themes from the first half of the season. He erased all those off a whiteboard in the team’s facility.

That board is much simpler now. It just listed out Auburn’s final five games. And he left a simple message.

“The first logistical step in our rebuild is gained bowl eligibility,” Freeze said he told his team.

Auburn didn’t go to a bowl game last year. It has played three total bowl games since 2018. It lost all of them.

So chasing bowl eligibility now would be a tangible mark of improvement. Ther are two steps down, now. Auburn won each of the first two games on that board.

Freeze reminded reporters he’s been to a bowl game in his first season as a head coach at every team he’s taken over: Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Liberty.

Making a bowl game, even at just a potential 6-6 record, is important because of the extra practice it would give Auburn. Don’t get to six wins? Official practices end the moment the final whistle of the Iron Bowl blows. But get to six? Auburn would have weeks of practices leading up to a bowl game likely close to Christmas.

For a team where Freeze has often discussed its youth, its inexperience and its need for development, the extra weeks of practice would be undeniably important.

“No. 1, you want to do it for your seniors,” Freeze said. “No. 2, you want to do it for your fans. But No. 3, you want the extra practices and another chance to compete for Auburn and to put our kids in that scenario of playing another quality opponent in a bowl game.”

It still has to get one more win. But Auburn’s turnaround these last two games with wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have shown growth of the struggling offense. Auburn has no longer used a quarterback rotation and quarterback Payton Thorne looks more comfortable. Running back Jarquez Hunter is playing his best football after a career-high 183 rushing yards against Vanderbilt.

If Auburn can to six wins, Freeze plans to celebrate at least one more time. He may celebrate at those extra practices, too.

“We felt like it was kinda like a home game or like a bowl game atmosphere anyways,” safety Jaylin Simpson said. “We already knew Vandy wasn’t the best team, but I mean, they’re still an SEC opponent, so you gotta go out there and give your all and play four quarters. So glad we got the dub. One more and then we’re on our way.”

Matt Cohen covers Auburn sports for AL.com. You can follow him on X at @Matt_Cohen_ or email him at mcohen@al.com

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i love me some bbq pork so lets smoke dem hawgs!!!!!!!!!!

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