Atlanta, Ga.--Too many penalties and too many other mistakes turned what had a chance to be a comfortable opening day Auburn football victory into a too-close-for comfort 31-24 win for the Tigers over Louisville on Saturday.
A perfect example of that happened with the Tigers up 24-3 in the third quarter. Jeremy Johnson connected on a 56-yard pass play to Jason Smith, who appeared to have scored another touchdown for Auburn. However, a holding call negated the play and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that followed backed up the Tigers to a first down and 35 situation.
Three plays later Johnson was intercepted for the third time. That set up six-play, 36-yard scoring drive for the Cardinals and it was game-on the rest of the way.
With Auburn struggling to contain freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Tigers could never regain the whip hand. Jackson didn’t do a lot of damage with his passing. He completed just 9-20 passes for 100 yards with one interception, but his running kept the game close. He ran 16 times for 106 yards and one touchdown.
Montravius Adams, a junior defensive tackle, summed up his team’s performance. “I believe we will learn a lot,” he said. “Tomorrow we will have a little time off and then we will go into our corrections. We are going to review what we did wrong and what we did right.”
Adams finished with seven total tackles, including three solo stops and one of his team’s four sacks.
Commenting on the defense, Adams said, “I feel like we did good the first half and I don’t think we did as well the second half. I think we got a little fatigued. We are going to correct that. We are going to condition and be ready for the next game.”
Johnson’s much-anticipated debut as the No. 1 quarterback left much to be desired. The junior hit threw 21 passes--11 were completions and three were intercepted, and he was fortunate there weren’t more picks. “We made some mistakes but I know I can play better,” he said.
Auburn fans didn’t have to wait long for the first points of the season that came just over two minutes into the opening quarter. Jeremy Johnson’s touchdown run was set up an a 35-interception return by safety Tray Matthews on the first play of the game and the first play as an Auburn Tiger for the transfer from Georgia.
The Tigers then moved the football 26 yards on five plays with Johnson scoring on a keeper at left end.
With the offense struggling to get into rhythm and Johnson throwing two first half interceptions, the only other touchdown before intermission came on an 82-yard scoop and score run by linebacker Justin Garrett, who picked up a fumble caused by pressure from Montravius Adams. That put the Tigers up 14-0 just when it looked like the Cardinals were moving into position to tie the game.
“That was my first touchdown since I was in high school,” the senior said after the game.
Justin Garrett heads for the end zone.
Adams said he wanted to scoop and score himself, but said, “I looked, but I couldn’t find the football.”
Auburn’s final points of the half came on a 56-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson with 34 seconds left in the half. It was a yard shy of the school record of 57 set by Neil O’Donoghue 1976 vs. Tennessee and match in 2003 vs. Western Kentucky by Philip Yost.
Carlson noted that he had to talk Coach Gus Malzahn into giving him a chance to try the field goal after the punt team was originally send on the field.
Halftime Numbers: Despite the big lead on the scoreboard the Tigers were out-gained. Louisville held the ball for 43 plays and netted 164 yards with 90 through the air, hitting 10-19 with one interception. The Cardinals rushed for 74 yards on 24 carries. Auburn rushed for 78 yards on 16 carries and Johnson hit 6-12 passes for 66 yards.
The Tigers were out-scored 10-7 in the third quarter. Auburn’s points came on a 33-yard pass to Ricardo Louis with 11:21 left in the period to make the score 24-3 to cap a drive that covered 75 yards on seven plays.
Louis scored again on an eight-yard run in the fourth quarter with 10:04 to play to make the score 31-10. That play capped a drive that covered 72 yards in 12 plays.
However, Auburn didn’t score again and Louisville drove 75 yards and 81 yards on drives of 11 and 12 plays to cut the lead to 31-24 with 2:59. Brandon Radcliff scored each of the TDs on two-yard runs.
Louisville tried an onside kick that was covered by Tre Williams and Auburn managed to run out the clock to win a game in which the Tigers were out-gained 405 yards to 327.
Injuries took a toll as the Tigers also lost starting safety Tray Matthews (shoulder ) in the second half and defensive end Carl Lawson (hamstring) was hurt in the first half and did not return to the game. As is normally the case, Malzahn did not provide any specifics on their conditions after the game, just saying the Tigers have some players who are “banged up.”