With Auburn dealing with injuries and limitations among its receivers during Saturday’s home opener against Tulane, junior Eli Stove and senior Will Hastings stepped up when the Tigers needed someone to lead the way.
Stove and Hastings became freshman quarterback Bo Nix’s go-to targets in the victory over Tulane, with Stove reeling in seven passes for 27 yards and Hastings coming up with five catches for 75 yards. Stove also got involved in the run game, taking two carries and scoring on a four-yard run in the second quarter.
Stove and Hastings’ contributions proved crucial with Anthony Schwartz sporting a heavily-wrapped left arm and Seth Williams left the game in the second quarter with an undisclosed injury.
“They're very important. Both those guys are playmakers for us,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “They're both veteran guys, and they know how to get open. It gives the quarterback a lot of confidence when you're throwing to those two guys.”
Stove was a constant target for Auburn in the first half – both in the passing game and on rushing attempts – but it was Hastings who got the Tigers on the board for the first time.
With 12:54 to go in the second quarter and Auburn in Tulane territory, Hastings ran down the middle of the field, caught Nix’s pass on the Green Wave 15-yard line, hesitated then spun past a Tulane defender for a 31-yard touchdown.
The touchdown was a notable achievement for Hastings, who had not scored since the 2018 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against UCF thanks to his ACL injury issues last season.
“It felt really, really good. Thank God I stayed healthy,” Hastings said. “It was awesome getting in the end zone and just celebrating with my teammates.”
Hastings ended the night with a scare, as he took a hit from Tulane defensive back Macon Clark late in the third quarter and left the contest. Clark was ejected for targeting on the play in question.
Although Hastings did not return to the game, he said he was cleared but that the coaches wanted to run the ball more in what was left of the game.
Stove, who like Hastings tore his ACL last spring and went through rehab at the same time, got the Tigers on the board again on the drive following Hastings’ score.
Two plays after Williams made a 40-yard reception but came up favoring his left shoulder, Stove took the hand-off on an end-around and raced to his right to put Auburn up 14-3 with 9:37 remaining until halftime.
Stove was able to come back and play in four games for the Tigers in 2018, but his impact was so limited that he topped his reception total and yardage gained on Saturday alone. As big as making plays himself was, Stove equally relished watching Hastings put points up in the Jordan-Hare Stadium scoreboard.
“I was very happy. We've been through a whole lot together,” Stove said. “It's just good to see him doing good things.”
Stove looked back to last spring, when the two spent countless hours together rehabbing from their knee injuries. He said the two were together most mornings starting at 5:45 a.m. as each gave it everything they had to recover and come back strong as soon as possible.
The road to recovery wasn’t a short one, but the two eventually returned to form. The result was a friendship that few outside the situation could ever fully appreciate.
“With rehab and stuff, we've been through a lot. It's just good to see all that stuff come back and be rewarded at the end,” Stove said.
“Eli is my brother. He'll be my brother until I die,” Hastings said. “Us going through that together was probably the hardest time in both our lives. I love him to death. That put us through a time in our life that we never really experienced.
“It just made us bond together so close and be brothers.”