Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers
The Tigers return home this week following a 14-10 west coast win last Saturday at Cal to take on the Samford Bulldogs in the annual homecoming game. Despite all the festivities revolving around a typical homecoming game, Saturday’s matchup against the Bulldogs provides Hugh Freeze’s still relatively new squad an opportunity to improve on both sides of the ball prior to the gauntlet that is playing the Southeastern Conference.
“You just don't win many games like that. And so we're very fortunate. I know this, I don't know that I've ever had a season where you didn't have a game where you felt like God we easily could have lost that game but out kids found a way and you can build on stuff like that and just really proud of our staff and kids,” said Auburn head coach, Hugh Freeze.
The Tigers were able to escape the weird atmosphere that is “Pac 12 After Dark” with their first win in the state of California on the backs of an impressive defensive effort from Ron Robert’s side of the ball. The Auburn defense leads the SEC in red zone defense perecentage, .333; second nationally behind Syracuse, and in third down conversion percentage defense, .185.
“And I was so proud of just the leadership on that side of the ball that just we got you,” Freeze said. “And Eugene Asante played his tail off and as did others I don't want to get to pointing them out. But we played really well. Jalen McLeod makes us different when he's playing. So there's so much to build on from that because we're gonna have some adverse situations in this league, particularly at the point we are in our program. And so we can point back to these moments of how you should fight to the end, irregardless of what the result ends up being. And that's the way we should keep fighting.”
Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers
Asante was named the SEC defensive co-player of the week after a career best 12 tackles in Auburn’s first ever win in the state of California. Along with a sack, Asante, the North Carolina transfer, record 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hurries and a pass breakup in the contest.
Alongside Asante, the Tiger’s secondary has had to lean on their depth early into the 2023 campaign and none have shined brighter than Auburn’s new five star freshman, Kaylin Lee.
“You know, we think he's gonna be really tough. He's really talent. He's gonna be really good. He's just young, Freeze said. “There's times I think he's still a little unsure about his confidence level and gives too much ground. There were a couple of those in the game. And obviously the 15 yard penalty, we didn’t need was critical at that juncture. But did he play well? Yes.”
The cornerback has turned heads on the plains as early as spring practices. Lee is the Tiger’s fourth most played defender this year, with 101 snaps and two starts in the first two contests. Against Cal, Lee played 69 of AU’s 80 defensive snaps and finished with three tackles and two pass breakups.
The Bulldogs offense likes to strike quick through the air and could be a good test for Auburn’s secondary prior to their trip to Bryan-College Station to start league play next week. Chris Hatcher’s offenses at Samford have had 183 scoring drives of two minutes or less and 82 that have lasted one minute or less during his eight seasons in Birmingham.
“(Chris) Hatcher and I've known each other for years, Freeze said. “I mean, I think he's one of the better offensive coaches in football. He's done a remarkable job there and he will have his kids excited and well prepared to play here. I have no doubt and they'll test you in the passing game for sure and throw it all around.”
Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers
Hatcher, a storied head coach in the FCS ranks, has led nine teams to NCAA postseason play during his career, including the 2016, 2017 and 2022 FCS Playoffs with the Bulldogs. For Hatcher, the name of the game is the offense. Over the last eight seasons, the Samford offense has scored at least 30 points 49 times. The unit has put up at least 40 points 27 times, and at least 50 points a total of 14 times.
Preseason All-American Micheal Hiers returns to the Bulldogs this season following a Southern Conference Championship season in 2022 in which he threw the ball for 3,544 yards and a program record-tying 36 touchdowns. Named the Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Hiers threw for 300+ yards in five games and tossed a season-high four touchdowns in seven games. Last Saturday in a loss at Western Kentucky that featured a nearly six hour weather delay, Hiers went 21-for-34 with 315 yards and one touchdown through the air against the Catamounts.
“I have no doubt and they'll test you in the passing game for sure and throw it all around…So I have great respect for him as a man and as a coach and you know, I know he'll have his guys ready,” Freeze said.
Auburn and Samford will kickoff from Jordan-Hare Stadium at 6p.m. CT in the annual homecoming game. The television broadcast can be found on ESPN+/SECN+ and can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.