What to make of Auburn’s quarterback situation after tight win over Cal.

It got so bad that Auburn didn’t even bother to attempt a pass in the third quarter.
Why would it? It had been such a mess at the quarterback position in the first half that in a quarterback rotation between Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford, head coach Hugh Freeze and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery took the ball out of Thorne’s hands entirely and only let Ashford keep the ball on the ground.
At halftime on the ESPN broadcast of Auburn’s eventual 14-10 win over Cal on Saturday night, Freeze said he expected to see improvements in accuracy and confidence from Thorne in the second half. If that didn’t happen, Auburn was going to give Ashford more opportunities.
Auburn had much more quarterback rotation against Cal than it did against UMass. It wasn’t a situation where Ashford only played in the redzone to run the ball. But whether that broader rotation was Auburn’s game plan or something it felt it had to try given the anemic offensive play, it didn’t work.
What was initially described as a quarterback room with Thorne as the starter and Ashford playing in certain situations seemed to take on the look of a two-quarterback system. And as a whole, Freeze wasn’t happy with either.
“Well, I didn’t think Payton was throwing it well, truthfully,” Freeze said after the game. “Now, the last drive, he did. He threw a great wheel route and a great fade ball. We’ve just got to get more consistent with that.”
But Auburn hardly had any consistency on offense no matter which quarterback was playing.
Thorne finished the game with nine completions on 14 attempts and 94 total yards. Thorne had two touchdown passes and was sacked three times. His longest pass was a 28-yard pass to tight end Rivaldo Fairweather that was the only pass-game spark Auburn had and the play that led to Auburn’s game-winning touchdown — also a pass to Fairweather.
Thorne ran the ball eight times for 22 yards, but lost 20 yards on sacks.
He was responsible for two turnovers with a fumble on the first drive and an interception thrown over Shane Hooks’ head.
Ashford completed one pass on his three attempts which gained no yards. He only had four rushes for fewer than 10 yards total.
Auburn averaged only 5.5 yards per pass attempt and 9.4 yards per completion.
Nor were Auburn’s quarterbacks helped out much from mistakes elsewhere on the offense. That included wide receivers who struggled to get open. The offensive line had difficulty getting much push and penalties from linemen like Izavion Miller didn’t help. There too was Jarquez Hunter running the wrong way on what could have been a key third-down conversion. Auburn went on to turn the ball over on downs.
“We were just trying to look for a spark, and we never really found it,” Freeze said. “But we still found a way to score enough points to win.”
Thorne may leave the game with some element of confidence, or at least redemption as he completed four of four passes for 56 yards on Auburn’s game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
That drive alone provided almost 60% of Auburn’s total passing yards and 40% of its total completions.
But Freeze didn’t express much confidence in the player he chose as Auburn’s starter. That showed when Auburn didn’t throw the ball in the third quarter at all. Auburn ran a total of nine plays in the third quarter and gained 43 yards.
Ashford didn’t do anything in his own right to necessarily call this a quarterback controversy with regard to who the starter will be.
If there is a controversy, it instead is over how Auburn’s quarterback rotation is going to work going forward.
The rotation between Ashford and Thorne didn’t seem to follow any sort of pattern or plan. Nothing was working anywhere offensively for Auburn and it was hard to find any player or scheme that could create any confidence — at least until Auburn began targeting Fairweather.
That comes after a win against UMass where the plan was very clear: use Ashford in the redzone to run the ball. Certainly, Cal’s defense is better than UMass’ and Auburn will face even tougher offenses when it gets into SEC play.
Auburn’s ceiling is likely higher with Ashford as the overall better athlete between himself and Thorne. And while Auburn’s floor is higher with Thorne, his limitations at quarterback have become quite clear through two games, neither of which were particularly strong performances for the Michigan State transfer.
Where it goes from here though feels uncertain. Freeze said he tried to change his quarterbacks to jump-start the offense and it mostly failed.
A two-quarterback system isn’t the most comfortable, consistent or reliable game plan. It’s something Freeze talked about when the plan was more successful against UMass.
“I know people in this world and day in time, you know, you can’t play two quarterback,” Freeze said. “Well, I don’t know, maybe they’re right. But we’re 1-0, and if we go 2-0 doing it, we’ll keep doing it.”
This is the system Auburn has right now. It’s going to stay that way. And its overall execution and implementation will remain a question.

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