September 08, 2015

(AP) - Auburn is keeping the faith in Jeremy Johnson after the quarterback's shaky opening game.

The sixth-ranked Tigers believe it was an aberration, and a growth experience.

Johnson made some bad decisions in their 31-24 win over Louisville with three interceptions, including one where he tried to force a ball into triple coverage. The performance was a little surprising considering Johnson had made few obvious mistakes in two previous starts and other relief appearances in his first two seasons.

He faced a different kind of pressure to perform this time. Johnson opened the season regarded as a longshot candidate for the Heisman Trophy and was highly regarded enough that Auburn was picked to win the SEC even in a division where all seven teams are now ranked.

''I think he was definitely trying to make some plays down the field early, which is to be expected,'' coach Gus Malzahn said. ''There's a lot of quarterbacks that do that. Just let it come within the offense, and he'll do that. We still have just as much or more confidence in Jeremy Johnson than we did before the game. The great thing about Jeremy is he'll learn from his mistakes and he'll get better.''

He might not have to do so Saturday when FCS power Jacksonville State visits, but a trip to No. 14 LSU a week later affords much less margin for error.

Johnson had his moments in the game. But he wound up passing for just 137 yards and a touchdown with interceptions coming on back-to-back drives and the third leading to a Louisville touchdown that helped the Cardinals get back into the game.

Johnson also didn't run much, gaining 11 yards on five carries counting one sack. A team that is banking on him to be the leader and one of the league's top passers isn't sweating one game.

''I think he stayed positive,'' receiver Ricardo Louis said. ''He knows he needs to look ahead and not worry about the past. Playing quarterback, that's one thing you really have to work on, having a short-term memory. That's what he has.''

Johnson hasn't had to overcome this kind of game in college. He had thrown only two interceptions in two seasons backing up Nick Marshall.

It didn't help matters that Auburn tailbacks Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson were limited to a combined eight carries with injuries sustained during the game. Malzahn indicated all the players hurt in that game, which also includes defensive end Carl Lawson, will be able to play against Jacksonville State.

Johnson did lead Auburn to a 24-0 third-quarter lead and throw for a 33-yard touchdown to Louis. He also had a near-perfect long touchdown pass to Jason Smith called back by a holding penalty, which hurt his stat line and how the performance was viewed.

''Probably a lot,'' offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of how that touchdown might have changed perception. ''Now you're looking at a guy that threw for over 200 yards and two touchdowns. (Three) plays later, we threw another interception. At this point, it's one game. He's still undefeated as a starter. He's our guy. Can't do anything about that, let's go win the next one.''

It comes against a Jacksonville State team which is ranked fifth in the STATS FCS poll - and received 24 first-place votes - after beating fellow top-10 team Chattanooga 23-20 on the road last Saturday.

The Gamecocks defensive line, which has a more SEC-like average size of 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds, could provide a bit of a test for Johnson. Last week, that unit sacked Mocs senior Jacob Huesman four times as Jacksonville State limited the two-time Southern Conference offensive player to 86 yards passing on 16 attempts and 50 rushing on 19 carries.

Auburn transfer Devaunte Sigler, a senior tackle, is the reigning Ohio Valley defensive player of the year for the defending conference champions.

Troymaine Pope leads the offense after rushing for 173 yards on 15 carries last week for the Gamecocks, who are 5-18 against FBS opponents and lost 45-7 to a No. 8 Michigan State team last season. They've never faced Auburn.

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