No. 6 Auburn rolls over Louisiana-Monroe
When Auburn lost to LSU five weeks ago, its College Football Playoff aspirations were unofficially put to rest.
The banter was that a two-loss squad had no need to keep “national championship” on the list of goals for the campaign.
Four victories later, the No. 6 Tigers’ title dreams have been revived and now hinge on next week’s showdown with Alabama. Auburn continued its second-half rise on Saturday by overcoming a shaky start to post a 42-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe in nonconference play at Auburn, Ala.
A win next Saturday over the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the annual Iron Bowl would give Auburn a spot in the SEC title game and move it closer to a possible top-four spot in the CFP.
“I’m proud of our team,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. “Four weeks ago, if somebody said we’d be in the position, I don’t think there would have been a whole lot of people around the country that would have believed it.
“Our team has put itself in the position. We’re playing the No. 1 team in the country again on our home field. ... It’s going to be a special game.”
Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham passed for 235 yards and two touchdowns and junior Kerryon Johnson rushed for 137 yards and one touchdown as the Tigers (9-2) scored 35 second-half points against the Warhawks. Sophomore Kam Martin rushed for one score and caught another.
Senior receiver Brian Williams scored two touchdowns (one receiving, one rushing) for Louisiana-Monroe (4-6), who pushed the Tigers in the first half before fading. Louisiana-Monroe was outgained 552-333 in offensive yards.
“We just could never get a whole lot going on offense the whole game,” Warhawks coach Matt Viator said.
“We turned it over in the second half. Give them credit, they’re really good. They are hard to move the ball against. We were just a little bit off. Some of that was because of them and a little bit of that was because of us.”
The high-intensity effort given by the Louisiana-Monroe players initially stunned the Tigers.
“They were playing like it was their Super Bowl,” Martin said. “They had two weeks to prepare for us. We just had to calm down and run the ball like we do.”
Auburn’s offense was sluggish for the first 28 minutes before the unit found its flow.
The contest was tied late in the first half when Auburn navigated 96 yards on four plays to take a 14-7 lead. Sophomore wideout Darius Slayton ran a fly pattern down the right sideline and got past true freshman cornerback Corey Straughter to make a 50-yard scoring catch with 1:27 remaining in the half.
The Tigers added to the lead in the third quarter when they traveled 95 yards on 10 plays. Martin capped the excursion with a 1-yard run to make it 21-7 with 9:33 left in the third quarter.
Martin scored another touchdown less than seven minutes later when he crept out of the backfield and into the left flat. Stidham found him on the left sideline and Martin meandered his way down the field to make it a three-touchdown margin.
Auburn had an opportunity to tack on another score early in the fourth quarter from the Warhawks’ 1-yard line but Stidham fumbled the snap and it was recovered by safety Traveion Webster.
But the Tigers got their touchdown on defense instead as senior free safety Nick Ruffin intercepted junior backup quarterback Garrett Smith, broke through a soft tackle attempt by Williams around the 20, and finished off the 45-yard return to make it 35-7 with 7:09 to play.
“Nick Ruffin looked like an offensive player; that was really nice,” Malzahn said. “He broke four or five tackles. That was a big play in the game, too.”
Williams was on the scoring end less than 90 seconds later as he took a short pass from Smith and turned it into a 70-yard touchdown. He caught the pass in the middle of the field at the Warhawks’ 40, headed toward the left and then outraced the Auburn secondary.
Redshirt freshman Malik Miller scored on a 1-yard run to give the Tigers a 42-14 advantage with 2:58 to go.
“Even though we didn’t start real fast, we got to halftime and came out and took care of business,” Malzahn said.
NOTES: Tigers junior DT Dontavius Russell recorded 3.5 tackles for losses, including a sack. ... The Warhawks fall to 0-3 in nonconference play, the other defeats coming against Memphis and Southern Mississippi. ... The Tigers improved to 11-0 all-time against Louisiana-Monroe, including the scare in 2012 when Auburn was forced into overtime before prevailing 31-28. ... Warhawks sophomore QB Caleb Evans was just 9-of-25 passing for 86 yards before being replaced. ... Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hears the rumors that mention his name for a possible coaching opening at Arkansas and he offered this comment in his postgame press conference: “You ignore it because one week you’re getting fired and the next week you’re going to take another job. I’m worried about the darn SEC West championship.”