After two games in which the Auburn defense did the bulk of the work while the offense found itself, the tables were turned early on Saturday.
The Tigers struggled to get stops against Kent State in the first half of what was an eventual 55–16 win for Auburn. Auburn’s issues opened the door briefly for Kent State before the Tigers’ talent got the home team back on track and left the Golden Flashes far behind.
“They threw some new things at us. That happened the first two weeks, too. Our guys adjusted,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “The great thing about our guys is we've got a veteran group over there that can adjust and do a really good job with holding that group to 16 points.”
Auburn was unable to get a defensive stop to open the Oregon and Tulane games, and that was the case again against a MAC team that went 2-10 last season. Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum used Auburn’s fierce pass rush against them repeatedly on the opening drive, patiently drawing the defenders in before finding an open teammate on a screen.
Those plays were particularly harmful for Auburn on third down. The Tigers forced the Golden Flashes into four third downs – including a 3rd-and-11 and a 3rd-and-9 – on the Kent State’s opening drive. Three times, the Golden Flashes converted.
“It was very hard. You never knew when it was going to be a screen,” defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “You're patiently waiting one time, then they throw the ball. You're like, 'Dang, I should have went on and rushed the passer.' Then you rush the passer, and he comes and hits you with a screen. It's kind of tricky to play with.”
The early issues on third down were a stark contrast to last week, when Auburn nearly suffocated Tulane on the money down to the tune of just two conversions on 15 attempts. To make matters worse, senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown exited after Kent State’s first drive, adding apparent injury to insult.
The Golden Flashes threatened for more points on their next drive before head coach Sean Lewis was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after a third-down incompletion, effectively knocking Kent State out of field-goal range. Two drives later, Crum delivered Kent State’s only touchdown of the first half on a 53-yard touchdown pass deep downfield to Isaiah McKay.
The Crum-to-McKay connection cut Auburn’s lead to 14-10 with 10:47 to go in the second quarter. Despite the unfavorable optics for the Auburn faithful, any dread among the fans about a four-quarter game against a Group of 5 opponent dissipated just as quickly as it appeared.
As poorly as the Auburn defense looked in the opening minutes, the Tigers turned things around as the game wore on. Auburn’s pass-rush pros eventually got the better of the Golden Flashes, leading to five sacks on the night.
“They were really, really going kind of fast, but we just settled down,” safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “(Defensive coordinator Kevin) Steele made some adjustments and got us lined up. Then we just played ball.”
“I feel like we set our cleats,” Davidson said. “We set our cleats, played Auburn football and dominated.”
Auburn’s stops on defense arrived just as its offense seemed to be firing on all cylinders, leaving Kent State with little chance of keeping pace.
The third-down issues that plagued Auburn off the bat Saturday didn’t linger for very long, either. Kent State’s near-perfect third-down numbers on the opening drive were followed by an 0-for-9 showing the rest of the first half. Kent State went home with a 9-of-18 showing on third down.
Although the Golden Flashes showed the occasional sign of life in the second half, the Tigers’ renewed defensive prowess was far too much for Kent State to withstand.
Auburn entered Saturday’s game as one of the nation’s top defenses opposite an offense that had its moments. There were moments Saturday when it was the Tigers’ defenders who looked off, but a strong answer proved more than enough to help the team reach 3-0.
“I feel like we're in a good spot, but I feel like we can amp it up some more,” Davidson said. “I feel like we still haven't reached our true talent yet.”