ATLANTA — Auburn notched the biggest non-conference win of this young season Saturday with a 21–16 victory against Washington at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here are three thoughts from an opener that could have College Football Playoff implications.
1. The guys with the best nicknames made the biggest plays for Auburn down the stretch. Auburn tailback JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow crashed into the end zone from 10 yards out with 6:15 remaining to allow the Tigers to retake the lead. Then, as Washington methodically attempted to make its way down the field, Auburn Buck linebacker Big Kat Bryant* sacked Huskies quarterback Jake Browning on a third-and-13 play from the Auburn 37-yard line. That sack was followed by another sack of Browning by Auburn defensive back Smoke Monday*.
*Bryant’s birth certificate says Markaviest, but the Auburn roster says Big Kat. So Big Kat he shall be. Especially after that sack. Monday’s birth certificate says Quindarious, but the Auburn roster says Smoke. So Smoke he shall be. Especially after that sack.
Auburn dominated most of the first half but failed to take control of the game. After a 10-yard Jarrett Stidham-to-Sal Cannella touchdown pass on the Tigers’ first offensive possession, Auburn could manage only field goals until Whitlow finally broke through in the fourth. Anders Carlson, the younger brother of former Tigers kicker Daniel “Legatron” Carlson—we’re using all the good nicknames we can here—made three of five field goal attempts in his first game as Auburn’s starter. One of those was a 53-yarder.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said the Huskies rushed three and dropped eight on many of Auburn’s red zone plays between the Tigers’ two touchdowns. Malzahn said offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey finally outfoxed the Huskies with his call of a simple inside zone play for the Whitlow’s touchdown.
Neither team played a pretty game. They combined for 22 penalties for 206 yards. Still, Malzahn left happy. After all, in Auburn’s last two games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium—the SEC title game against Georgia and the Peach Bowl against UCF—the Tigers lost. Saturday, Auburn was the team celebrating at the end. “They seized the moment,” Malzahn said. “Even though it didn’t look super at times, they found a way to win.” Said Stidham: “We don’t care if it’s here or in a parking lot. We just want to play football and find a way to win.”
The win against the presumed Pac-12 frontrunner gives Auburn some serious cachet, but the Tigers will need to work out some kinks before they face LSU in two weeks. Washington could be one of the best defenses Auburn will face this season, but the Auburn will face similar—and possibly better—personnel against LSU, Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers are at their best when they’re running the ball effectively between the tackles with tempo, but they struggled on that front Saturday. Auburn averaged only 3.3 yards a carry against the Huskies. Fortunately, Stidham took care of the ball and completed 26 of 36 passes for 273 yards.
The defense, meanwhile, allowed 6.1 yards a play and allowed Browning to hit several long passes. Still, the Tigers were excellent in the red zone, and the defense came through with sacks from Bryant and Monday when they needed them most.
2. No, the Pac-12 is not eliminated from the College Football Playoff because Washington lost to Auburn. But after the league went 1–8 in bowl season, this certainly wasn’t the start the folks on the West Coast had hoped for.
Had the Tigers blown out the Huskies, we might be predicting doom for the league. But a one-possession loss 2,600 miles from home doesn’t close the door on the Huskies or the Pac-12. Washington might have to run the table to make the playoff, but the Huskies still have a shot. Meanwhile, Washington and everyone else in the league needs to pull for Auburn to have an excellent run in the SEC this season. This also put pressure on some of the league’s other teams to win against their best non-conference opponents. USC (Notre Dame and Texas), Stanford (Notre Dame) and Arizona State (Michigan State) need to earn the Pac-12 some respect.
3. The Huskies will be kicking themselves for a while after missing multiple opportunities to take control in the second half.
In the third quarter, Washington had a go-ahead touchdown wiped off the board because receiver Andre Baccellia set a pick on an Auburn defensive back to spring receiver Aaron Fuller for a catch. Covering his groin as he reached his target would have been the only way for Baccellia to make the pick any more obvious. Kicker Peyton Henry missed a 40-yard field goal attempt two plays later, and Auburn clung to a two-point lead.
After Carlson missed a 54-yard field goal attempt on the ensuing Auburn possession, Washington marched down the field again. A 25-yard Myles Gaskin run followed by a 17-yard pass from Jake Browning to Quinten Pounds set up the Huskies with first-and-goal from the eight-yard line. Three plays later, Browning was trying to run a speed option play with tailback Salvon Ahmed when Auburn’s Nick Coe came crashing through Washington’s offensive line. Coe hit Browning, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Auburn linebacker Darrell Williams.
Auburn facemask and offsides penalties helped the Huskies down the field on their next possession. And while they still couldn’t put the ball in the end zone despite having first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, Henry did sneak a 30-yard field goal attempt inside the right upright to give the Huskies a 16–15 lead early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they had left a lot more points on the field.