Auburn and Louisville face QB questions after the Tigers’ narrow win

Auburn and Louisville are in similar situations: quarterback play will likely determine how far each respective squad goes. Yet, on Saturday in the season opener for these teams, a peculiar thing happened: Auburn won not because of quarterback play, but in spite of it. Louisville got the better of the battle at that one position on the field.

The problem for the Cardinals? They surrendered a long touchdown off a botched quarterback-running back exchange. Their offensive line also got walloped, for the most part, by Auburn’s front seven, given a boost by the arrival of Will Muschamp as the team’s new defensive coordinator.

Others will write more about Louisville and Auburn as collective teams. This piece will examine the quarterbacks for each side on Saturday, pointing the way to what they need to work on as the season moves forward.

*

While there was no question who would be under center for Auburn, Louisville waited until just before the start of Saturday’s game in Atlanta to go with Reggie Bonnafon.

Bobby Petrino showed his trust in Bonnafon on the first play from scrimmage… by going away from him and allowing Lamar Jackson to throw an interception as ugly as the font on the Louisville jerseys.

However, Bonnafon responded well on the following drive, taking the Cardinals into the red zone. While the drive ended in a missed field goal, Bonnafon showed the ability to complete passes in and out of the pocket, going 4-of-5 on the drive. He also completed a third-and-7 play to keep the drive alive. Bonnafon did miss on a play that could have given the Cardinals a response touchdown after Auburn’s early score. While it would have taken a perfectly dropped-in throw, it should have been made.

Louisville saw a lot of “Good Bonnafon” in this game. “Bad Bonnafon” showed up at the beginning of the second half, when he took a pair of sacks while Louisville was driving. This is nothing new for Bonnafon, as he was brought down for a sack on 15.5 percent of his drop-backs last season.

Jackson followed up Bonnafon for the Cardinals, and made it clear that Petrino was looking for a spark in the running game. While the freshman has blazing 4.4 speed, Jackson certainly has a ways to go before being prepared to make consistent throws at the college level.

The only question is whether a running-oriented version of Jackson is the best option for the Cardinals, given the growing pains he will certainly show as a passer. Petrino needs to figure out what version of Jackson will give Louisville the best chance to win. With Bonnafon in, Auburn had no issues stopping the run. Jackson kept the Tigers honest and created big plays in the second half. Jackson rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown, while completing 9-of-20 passes for 100 yards and an interception.

Now is decision time for Petrino. The choice moving forward will dictate the kind of offense Louisville will run this season. There is no going back once the commitment is made. With the way that the second half played out on Saturday in the Georgia Dome, the decision appears to already be made with Jackson, who led three touchdown drives and four straight scoring drives in the half.

*

On the other side for Auburn, Jeremy Johnson was sharp on the first drive of this game. He stood in the pocket, completed passes, and eventually showed his Cam Newton-esque running ability.

If “Bad Bonnafon” showed up for Louisville, “Bad Johnson” entered the building for Auburn. Johnson threw two first-half interception to Josh Harvey-Clemons, who certainly has more fond memories of Saturday than his last Auburn experience as a Georgia Bulldog. The first Johnson mistake was trying to throw the ball past Harvey-Clemons. Instead, it hit him between the numbers. The second was an underthrown, first-down ball into triple coverage.

Much of the first half, Johnson looked anxious and far from a Heisman candidate. His throws were all over the place for his receivers. He seemed to be antsy in the pocket and unsettled with his footwork as well.

In the first half against Louisville, Johnson completed only four more passes to his own squad than he did to Harvey-Clemons (6 to 2), due to all the deficiencies mentioned above.

Gus Malzahn chalked it up to nerves for Johnson in the first half, and there may have been some truth to that. On his first throw of the second half, Johnson hit Ricardo Louis in the end zone after extending the pocket to the right. While the ball was slightly underthrown, it was a more-than-adequate play.

The pass was called back for a hold, but Johnson didn’t flinch. Shortly later, he hit a receiver in stride for what would have been a long touchdown strike.

The ultimate point of concern for Auburn in the wake of this victory over Louisville is that for all the good things Johnson did in spots, he didn’t sustain them very long at all. Quality plays were exceeded by horrid mistakes. Two plays after throwing a laser on a post route, the shaky version of Johnson returned — he tossed his third interception of the day, this time on third down and long. While he did have the touchdown pass outside of the pocket, Johnson committed most of his errors in the same situation. In Malzahn’s offense, that has to improve over time for Auburn to have title hopes in the SEC.

Auburn will clearly be built around defense and running the ball, as usual. This was shown on Saturday against Louisville, on a day when Malzahn collected the result he needed, but with more fourth-quarter stumbles than the would have liked. The Tigers will need to get clean and solid play from Johnson in order to compete for the SEC West crown and ultimately a national title. If they get the version of Johnson who showed up on Saturday, neither of these will be an option.

Quantcast