ATLANTA — Auburn opened its season as the SEC favorite with a 31–24 win over Louisville in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in the Georgia Dome. Although the Cardinals closed a 24–0 gap, the Tigers never trailed. Here are three thoughts from the Auburn victory:
1. Jeremy Johnson isn’t Cam Newton just yet
When Johnson rumbled into the end zone on Auburn’s first possession, he lent credence to the Newton comparisons that were used rampantly this off-season. Perhaps the Tigers’ new starting quarterback, whose 6’5”, 240-pound frame mirrors that of the former Heisman winner, could also lead the program to the promised land.
But Johnson’s first start of 2015 had as many question marks as it did bright spots. On the auspicious side, the junior averaged seven yards per attempt for 140 passing yards with two total touchdowns. He displayed a command of the pocket and successfully scrambled his way out of Louisville pressure. Johnson showed off the arm Gus Malzahn raved about this spring with a couple of long balls, including one third-quarter touchdown that was called back due to holding.
But Johnson also threw threw interceptions, all of which were poor decisions on his part. The Cardinals turned his third pick into a Lamar Jackson touchdown run with 1:21 left in the third period that brought them back within 14. Auburn fans should be cautiously optimistic about Johnson’s potential this season. He needs to clean up his decision-making, but if he does, he could take the Tigers far.
2. Will Muschamp passed his first test
In 12 seasons as either a head coach or a defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp has coached defenses that ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed on 10 occasions. That’s why many expected a major improvement in Auburn’s defense under Muschamp, and on Saturday that unit looked much better than it did 2014.
The Tigers’ defensive line, in particular, did a bang-up job against the Cardinals. Defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed last season with a torn ACL, looked like his old self with a sack and two tackles for loss. Auburn’s front seven set up camp in Louisville’s backfield, compiling four sacks and nine tackles for loss. The secondary wasn’t without its bright spots; safety Tray Matthews picked off quarterback Reggie Bonnafon on Louisville’s first play from scrimmage.
Auburn’s role as a potential playoff team might come down to its defense, and for at least one game, that group looked well coached under Muschamp.
3. This didn’t look like a Bobby Petrino offense
History suggested a strong showing for Louisville in the Georgia Dome. Petrino-coached teams have won 10 straight season openers while scoring at least 30 points in each of the last five years. But these Cardinals might go through some growing pains in 2015.
Louisvile picked up 405 yards of offense but just 167 through the air. Bonnafon and Jackson split time at quarterback, but neither was a game-changer against Auburn, as Bonnafon looked slow in his progressions while Jackson was more of a threat with his legs (he led all Cardinals rushers with 106 yards on the ground).
An offensive line breaking in three new starters struggled against Auburn’s defense. Louisville’s running game, apart from Jackson, also had a slow start. Lead back Brandon Radcliffe picked up just 76 yards on 17 carries. It didn’t help that stellar receiver James Quick left the game hurt in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps Jackson, a true freshman, showed enough big-play ability to earn more playing time in the coming weeks. But Louisville’s offense needs to find some stability—particularly up front—before a darkhorse ACC title run is in the cards.