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Momentum - The Vanderbilt Game

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

Despite the schools being separated by just a state away, Auburn travels to Nashville, TN, to take on Vanderbilt on the road for the first time in eleven seasons. And when these two teams play for just the sixth time since the turn of the century, Hugh Freeze and his Tigers will look to keep the positive momentum going into the month of November.

“So, good to get one at home, and now, hopefully, we can build on it,” Hugh Freeze said on Monday. “This is a scary game to me. I've always thought playing there (Vanderbilt) was difficult, for whatever reason.”

The Auburn offense ran out of the tunnel hot last Saturday, scoring on their first two possessions and racking up 301 total yards of offense in the first half alone, which was more total yards than in any other entire Power Five contest the Tigers had played so far under Freeze.

“Offensively, it was our best-balanced performance for sure. It was good to see our receivers make some plays and our quarterback play with some confidence. I thought our protection was good, and I thought we ran the ball really effectively against a team that really doesn't give up the run. In the first half, I thought we ran it as well as I've seen anybody do that.”

With the implementation of tempo into the offensive scheme against Mississippi State, Auburn was able to put together a balanced attack for the first time all season against a Power Five opponent. The most notable positive change for the Tigers was the success through the air.

Eleven receivers had a reception on Saturday, three with a touchdown pass and nine with multiple targets. In a wide receiver room where there isn’t a clear number one talent, the ability to spread the ball around and not allow the defense to key in on the ground game will be crucial moving forward following the best performance to date for Freeze’s offense.

“Basically, we said we're going back to what I'm used to. We’re going to play with some tempo, and we're going to take our shots when we get them. We're going to see if you guys rise to the occasion,” Freeze said. “But, it was really good to see our receivers get some confidence and make some plays. I think just simplifying down where we can play a little (more free) and faster was really beneficial.”

Photo by Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers

Despite the momentum in the passing game, there seems to be an increasing opportunity for Auburn to run the ball in Nashville, TN this Saturday. In three of Vanderbilt’s five conference games this season, the Commodores have allowed their opponent to rush for more yards than their season average. In their two more successful defensive performances, Ole Miss and Missouri were shy by 10 and 12 yards of their season averages.

The Tigers, behind an offensive line that had two players receive weekly SEC honors, have gotten things going in the ground game with star running back, Jarquez Hunter, who had a season-high 144 yards with a game-sealing 50-yard run on the final drive. If the Tigers are able to not only run tempo with an advanced passing scheme but also run the ball to keep the defense off the field, it could be a tall task for a Commodore offense that is still trying to figure out the quarterback position to score enough points to compete with the Tigers.

“(Ken) Seals and then this kid they brough in last week, (CJ) Taylor, is very athletic. That receiver is special, (Will) Shepherd. They make me nervous. You watch the way they competed against Georgia, particularly at home, I think they are a different team there,” Freeze said. “I’ve been impressed with Clark Lea every time I’ve been around him. They are going to be in the right spot. They are going to play hard. They are going to do the right things. If you go up there and you don’t get some momentum going your way, I’ve been there with a really good Ole Miss team, and it was tough.”

But in a weird environment and a place where Auburn has struggled to win recently, a turnover or two could drastically affect the outcome of the contest.

Both the Commodores and Tigers have created chaos for their opponents. Vanderbilt, under the defensive guidance of head coach Clark Lee, has showcased an impressive knack for interceptions, tallying 10 picks this season. This places them in a tie with Auburn for the most interceptions in the SEC and ranks them 13th in the entire FBS. The Commodores' total of 13 turnovers gained stands as the second-highest in the SEC, trailing only behind Auburn's count of 14.

Photo by Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers

On the flip side, the Auburn Tigers, led by defensive coordinator Ron Roberts, have become a turnover-generating force to be reckoned with. Using schemes that feature delayed blitz packages, the Tigers have started a streak, forcing turnovers in 17 consecutive games dating back to the previous season—a feat that mirrors their longest streak in 2007-08.

“Well, he’s one of the best in the nation at calling games. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses, and you want to play to your strengths,” Freeze said. “One of his strengths is definitely gameday, calling the football game from a defensive perspective and making the adjustments within the system. I think he is really, really gifted at that.”

Auburn sits atop the SEC in turnovers forced, amassing 14 takeaways in the first eight games of the season, showcasing a balanced mix of 10 interceptions and 4 recovered fumbles. Jaylin Simpson, with four interceptions to his name, stands among the national FBS leaders, boasting an average of 0.50 interceptions per game this season and earning recognition as a midseason All-American by the Associated Press.

Auburn and Vanderbilt are scheduled to kick off from Firstbank Stadium at 3 pm CT this Saturday afternoon with television coverage on the SEC Network. The game can be heard around the state of Alabama on the Auburn Sports Network.

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