Texas A&M 31, Auburn 20: 3 things we learned from yet another loss to a ranked opponent
AUBURN — The play that defined Saturday’s game came early in the fourth quarter.
Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond fired a pass toward tight end Jalen Wydermyer in the end zone. Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain, who read it all the way, leapt in front of it and got two hands on the ball.
But he couldn’t bring it in for the game-changing interception the Tigers have been able to come up with so often this season. Instead, the ball bounced off his hands and into Wydermyer’s for the 20-yard touchdown that gave the Aggies the lead.
No. 5 Texas A&M went on to win, 31-20. Auburn can now finish the regular season no better than 6-4.
"You’re playing a really good team. It’s going to come down to just a few plays if you’re going to have a good chance to win," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "It went from one extreme to the other."
Here are three things we learned:
1. Auburn’s defense had absolutely no answer for Texas A&M
The idea that the Iron Bowl performance might be an outlier simply because Alabama is so good was put to bed Saturday as Kevin Steele’s defense was routinely gashed.
Each of the Aggies’ first four drives started on their own 25-yard line. They reached the end zone, the Auburn 37, the Auburn 1 and the end zone again. Kellen Mond completed 11 of his first 12 passes for 97 yards and the first touchdown, then ran for another. The visitors averaged 7.9 yards per carry on the ground.
The fact that the Tigers gave up just 14 points in the first half was a minor miracle, made possible only by a goal-line stand and a missed field goal early in the second quarter. Texas A&M had third-and-goal from the 1 but decided to pass, and McClain sacked Mond.
If he had been able to make another heroic play in the fourth quarter, the outcome might have been different. But relying on goal-line stands and end-zone turnovers isn’t a sound defensive game plan. That, Auburn either didn’t have or struggled to execute in its home finale.
The Aggies racked up 509 total yards, averaged 7.3 yards per play, converted 7 of 11 third downs and possessed the ball for 38 of the game's 60 minutes. Mond completed 18 of 23 passes for 196 yards and two scores. Isaiah Spiller rushed for 120 yards on 20 carries, and Devon Achane nearly joined him in the century club with 99 on just nine carries.
"I’m not accustomed to things like that. I’m so used to guys like Derrick (Brown) and Marlon (Davidson) being beside me, so when you get in situations like that, you always kind of know the outcome," senior defensive end Big Kat Bryant said. "We had a couple mental errors in there, guys just not fitting their gaps, but like I said, the room for the margin of error is just real small, and we just couldn’t execute.”
2. Auburn’s offense did some good things, but not enough to win
Bo Nix made Jordan-Hare Stadium magic when he escaped the grasp of a host of Texas A&M defenders, retreated to the 20-yard line and managed to scramble for a 5-yard touchdown. That was the first of his two rushing touchdowns in the game.
Auburn did surprisingly well in that area Saturday, despite the fact that left tackle Alec Jackson and running back D.J. Williams were out and right tackle Brodarious Hamm and running back Tank Bigsby were questionable to play die to injury. Texas A&M entered with the second-best rush defense in the SEC, holding opponents to 3 yards per carry and 87.1 yards per game.
The Tigers ran for 166 yards on 6.5 yards per attempt. They’re just the second team this season to go over 110 yards in the ground against the Aggies.
But they didn’t do enough with the scoring opportunities that success gave them. They scored on four of five drives spanning halftime, but two resulted in red-zone field goals: the first after Nix airmailed a wide-open Eli Stove in the corner of the end zone.
"That was a factor," Malzahn said. "I think our guys, they played hard. We just didn't get it done."
And when Texas A&M took the lead on Wydermyer’s touchdown, Auburn responded with back-to-back three-and-outs. The Tigers were outgained 168-21 in the fourth quarter.
3. The Gus Malzahn hot seat chatter is about to heat up again
Saturday represented Auburn’s final chance to defeat a ranked SEC opponent this season. It had a chance to win, and it didn’t.
The loss drops the Tigers to 5-4 nine games through this conference-only schedule. A win at Mississippi State next week would guarantee an eighth consecutive over-.500 finish, but not one that the fan base will be anywhere near satisfied with. Not after losses at rivals Georgia and Alabama, plus to a South Carolina team that fired its coach just a few weeks later.
Malzahn is in year three of a seven-year, $49-million contract signed following the 2017 season. His buyout is still north of $21 million. That’s a lot of money to even consider paying out to make a change (which increases even more when you consider the cost of finding and hiring a new one), especially when you consider all the revenue lost during a year so impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there are many in the fan base who have been fed up with the performance of Malzahn’s teams for a while, and this will add only more fuel to their fire. The decision will ultimately come down to athletics director Allen Greene, but at the very least you can expect the noise on social media to be very loud over the next few weeks.