5 takeaways from Auburn’s Birmingham Bowl victory over Memphis


No. 1: Auburn still has no answer at quarterback

Sean White got the start at quarterback over Jeremy Johnson, and at first he was moving the offense well, but then Gus Malzahn dialed up some passing plays. After hitting on three of his first four passes, he threw two interceptions before halftime, one of which was taken back for a Memphis touchdown.

Related Story: Auburn defense shuts down Memphis, Lynch in Birmingham Bowl win

The first interception he threw was on a fourth and two play where he was trying to hit the running back out of the backfield. He was pressured and hit as he threw, but he threw a bullet that went right to the Memphis linebacker. Had he been given time he could have floated it over the linebacker to the running back for an easy first down.

The second interception he just didn’t look off the safety as he threw the ball deep and it was picked off. He looked a little bit better in the second half, although he really wasn’t needed as Gus started relying more heavily on the ground game. He finished the game going 8-14 for 103 yards and 2 interceptions. White also had 1 carry for 1 yard rushing.

White is still just a freshman so there is still hope that he can improve, but as we get ready to go into the offseason you still can’t count on him being the clear cut starter in 2016.

Johnson played almost the entire fourth quarter when the game was in hand, but he was only asked to throw one pass … and it went for a touchdown. He ran the ball more effectively picking up 26 yards on the ground on 3 carries with a long run of 17 yards.

If Johnson can continue to run the ball with that kind of effectiveness then maybe he has a shot at being the quarterback next year, but there is still no answer as to who will be the Auburn starting quarterback in 2016.

No. 2: Defense plays inspired

For the first time since the first half of the Louisville game to start the season the Auburn defense was healthy. It certainly showed as they put on their best performance of the year by shutting down the projected number one quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft.

Paxton Lynch threw for just 108 yards on 38 attempts, and the entire Memphis offense only managed to put up 205 total yards of offense.

A lot of the credit has to go to interim defensive coordinator Lance Thompson as he had this defense prepared in this game. Sure they had a lot of time to prepare and get healthy, but this was by far the best that defense has looked all year.

I really hope Thompson will stay on the staff despite not even being considered as Auburn’s next defensive coordinator. With Kevin Steele now on board we will see what the future holds for Thompson.

One thing is for sure, he had this defense ready to play in this game and they are the reason Auburn was able to dominate Memphis. The only touchdown Memphis scored came on an interception. And their lone field came after a 15 yard penalty set them up with good field position.

These players showed that they can be a great defense, and hopefully Steele builds on that momentum into the offseason and into 2016.

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No. 3: Gus tries to be too cute in the first half

Auburn almost let the game slip away from them in the first half. Things were going so well in the run game, and then all of sudden Gus decided to pull out his bag of tricks. That led to an interception being thrown by a wide receiver, and another interception being thrown on a fourth down that led to Memphis’ only touchdown.

To be fair, the fake punt on the first drive of the game was beautiful and helped Auburn take the early lead. However, the play calling was a bit perplexing considering how well Auburn was running the football.

I’m not sure why Gus ever abandoned the run game and decided to let White throw the ball. Sometimes he tries to get a little too cute and it almost cost him in this one. The play calling in the second half was much better as he leaned on Jovon Robinson and let him finish off Memphis.

No. 4: Lance Thompson needs to stay on this staff

I personally think it’s a slap in the face that Thompson wasn’t even considered for the defensive coordinator job, especially after how well the defense played in the Birmingham Bowl. It would not be surprising now to see him bolt to another school, but for the sake of the defense it’s important that Thompson stay on this staff.

We’ve already mentioned how well the defense played in this game, and how a lot of that can be contributed to how Thompson prepared them heading into the Birmingham Bowl. The players obviously respond to him so Gus needs to make it a priority that he stays on this coaching staff along with Kevin Steele going forward.

No. 5: Auburn can win without throwing the football

At least against teams like Memphis, Auburn doesn’t have to throw the football to win ball games. When Malzahn’s offense was at its best he was dominating teams with the ground game, and that’s exactly what they did in the bowl game.

Auburn rushed for more yards in this game (251) than Memphis had in total yards (205). The Tigers aren’t going to lose too many games when they’re rushing for over 250 yards. With Robinson, Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas and Kerryon Johnson all returning next year there isn’t any reason that formula shouldn’t continue.

Of course it helps when you have a quarterback who is a threat to run the ball as well, which is what was missing from the offense this year. So many people are focusing on whether or not Johnson or White can throw the ball, when really we should be focusing on who can ran the ball better, because that’s when this offense is at its best.