The Auburn Tigers bombed the Furman Paladins 63-31 in front of a Saturday afternoon Homecoming crowd.
The win was expected as was the relative ease with which it was achieved.
When you’re facing an opponent at a clear disadvantage in terms of talent, there are three things that must be achieved:
1) Avoid injury
2) Allow backups and rarely used players to gain experience; and
3) Learn something about your team
By that measure, Auburn’s win over the Paladins was a success.
The Tigers escaped without major injury.
Second string quarterback Neil Caudle played extensively. Anthony Gulley showed his wheels, breaking loose for a long touchdown run. Heralded freshman receiver DeAngelo Benton made his first significant impact of the season, catching six passes for 88 yards. Receivers Tim Hawtorne, Emory Blake and Derek Winter all made contributions.
The Tigers scored on six of seven first half possessions, each drive covering 50-plus yards, as they stacked up a 42-3 lead.
At the end of the day, Auburn got exactly what it needed out of a win over a clearly outmatched opponent.
The question is, what did the Tigers learn?
First and foremost, Auburn learned that it cannot turn the ball over. Furman scored 28 second half points, 14 of those set up by fumbles deep in Auburn territory.
A muffed punt return gave Furman the ball at the Tiger six early in the third quarter, highlighting nagging special teams breakdowns that have plagued the team all season long.
Furman converted that gift and got another on the next series when the Tigers put the ball on the ground after a botched hand off. The Paladins took over at the Auburn 37 and jammed the ball down the Tigers’ throat.
The 42-3 halftime lead morphed to a slightly less comfortable 42-17 difference before the returning fans had finished their hot dogs.
The Tigers learned that Caudle can handle the position in a pinch. The oft-injured junior managed the position well in the first extended playing time of his career.
Caudle led three touchdown drives, all of which covered 60-plus yards. He was 10-12 passing for 115 yards. On the second touchdown drive, Caudle overcame a first and 25 after back to back penalties.
Auburn learned that its special teams is still special in the bad way. Dropping a punt at the Auburn six is the kind of thing that will doom a team in SEC play. Auburn has no Furmans left on the rest of the schedule.
Auburn learned that its defense still has significant issues.
Justify it in any way you wish: bad field position, players playing out of position, second and third stringers in the game, the defense was tired, depth… we’ve heard them all. Fact remains that Furman doesn’t score 31 points on a quality defense.
The Paladins managed just 12 against Elon. Auburn’s second or third string defense can’t compete with Elon?
Pat Sullivan’s tiny Samford team, held Furman to 24.
There just really isn’t an excuse for a team of Furman’s caliber to put up 31 points on an SEC team.
But more disturbing than the final score was the way the Paladins kicked Auburn in the grill on the game’s first series.
After hitting an underneath pass for 14 yards on the first play, the Paladins chewed up 66 yards in 12 plays, converting a fourth and two at one point.
Thankfully, after the first drive, the Tiger stopping unit settled in and cut the Paladins off at the knees. Furman managed a total of eight yards the rest of the first half.
Still, the opening drive backpedal is one reason for pause.
Another? The quarterback play.
While Todd and Caudle combined to complete 27 of 30 passes for a total of 273 yards, neither bothered to work through progressions. Todd may have thrown 4 touchdown passes and set an broken Jason Campbell’s single-game record for completion percentage, but he did so by locking onto receivers at the snap and waiting for them to break free before delivering. So did Caudle.
At least once Todd forced a ball into triple coverage across the middle while ignoring a wideout who had left his man cold and was standing alone with no defender within 15 yards. The catch was made in traffic, but the play could have gone the distance with better field vision.
The singular focus was effective against a team that couldn’t stick with Auburn’s receivers one on one, but it won’t have the same impact as the Tigers finish the SEC slate.
There is no more time for learning. Auburn closes out the season with traditional foes Georgia and Alabama and then a likely bowl game.
Furman was the last chance to work out the few remaining kinks before the season grinds into the home stretch.
There were lessons to be learned in Saturday’s lazy, routine win. What Auburn does with them will likely be the difference between exceeding expectations and merely meeting them.
Photo by Kevin Strickland. For more, go here.