The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind Enemy Bylines: Auburn Tigers

The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines to interview Jacob Waters, Sports Editor at The Auburn Plainsman, to preview Vanderbilt’s matchup with Auburn.
Narenkumar Thirmiya
The Commodores will look for their first victory since Week 1 against Auburn. (Hustler Multimedia/Narenkumar Thirmiya)

Following its seventh consecutive loss in a 33-7 defeat to Ole Miss, Vanderbilt will look to get back in the win column as the Commodores welcome the Auburn Tigers to Nashville on Saturday afternoon. Originally armed with bowl aspirations, Vanderbilt’s season has gone off the rails following two early wins over Hawaii and Alabama A&M

For Auburn, Saturday’s matchup represents an opportunity to build some momentum off the back of a convincing win over Mississippi State last weekend. After starting the season with three wins, the Tigers lost four consecutive SEC matchups before last weekend, putting them at 4-4 heading into FirstBank Stadium. As the Tigers push for a bowl appearance, emerging victorious on Saturday will mark a strong step in the right direction.

While the Commodores are mathematically eliminated from bowl contention, winning more than two games after a five-win 2022 season will ultimately be very important for head coach Clark Lea’s program and its future. To understand the opponent better, the Hustler spoke with Jacob Waters, Sports Editor of The Auburn Plainsman, to preview Vanderbilt’s matchup with the Tigers. 

The Vanderbilt Hustler: What did Auburn do well last week against Mississippi State as it broke a four-game losing streak?

Jacob Waters: Compared to the previous four games, Auburn came out and passed the ball really, really well. In the games before that, Auburn was throwing in Payton Thorne and Robbie Ashford seemingly every other possession, so neither could get in any flow. Against Mississippi State, though, Auburn stuck with Thorne the entire time and he finished with 230 yards and 3 touchdowns. Statistically, it might not be his best game, but against Power 5 competition, that’s been his best game in an Auburn uniform. He looked a lot more cool back there and the fact that he was not subbed out helped him get into a rhythm and find his receivers.

Auburn decided to throw the ball a lot more against Mississippi State, compared to say their game versus Ole Miss, where they had six passing attempts going into the fourth quarter. Auburn changing the game plan in that regard and opening up the offense helped them come out and take the lead early. 

VH: QB Payton Thorne has struggled with inconsistency thus far; how would you characterize his season and what kind of player he is?

JW: So far, it’s been disappointing for Auburn fans, who were hoping he could revert back to his play during his first year at Michigan State, where he broke a lot of their records. That hasn’t been the case. The plan going into the season was for Thorne to be the guy, but the game against Texas A&M provided a turning point as he really struggled in that game. Since then, Hugh Freeze has given Robbie Ashford some chances to start, as well. It’s definitely been disappointing; nobody had the plan of having this dual-quarterback system and Freeze saw Thorne as the guy coming in, but it didn’t work out that way.

His strengths come when Auburn opens up the playbook for him, like against Mississippi State. Lots of easier throws across the middle which eventually set him up to take deeper shots down the field, which he’s very accurate. When he has the chance to get in a rhythm with slants and crossing routes, that’s when he’s at his best. He’s also been very good rushing this year, which has been an unexpected strength. As for weaknesses, earlier in the season he was really struggling when defenses put pressure on him; either freezing up entirely or making a dangerous throw. He has also struggled a bit with his accuracy at times.

VH: Despite an uncertain quarterback situation, Vanderbilt has been a very pass-oriented offense this season. How do you expect Auburn’s secondary to match up?

JW: Auburn’s secondary matches up very well with Vanderbilt. Currently, the secondary is arguably the biggest strength of the team and is actually tied with Vanderbilt for first in the SEC in interceptions at 10. Many of Auburn’s most talented players are in the secondary, like safety Jaylin Simpson, who was named a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. Nehemiah Pritchett and D.J. James at cornerback are both very talented players who will be drafted to the NFL next year. At the other safety position is Zion Puckett, who has had an interception in Auburn’s last two games. On top of that, Auburn has a ton of depth there as well, in the case that one of those guys gets injured. With a ton of talent back there, I do think Auburn’s secondary will match up well with Vanderbilt’s passing offense.

VH: Who are some key Auburn players on offense for Vanderbilt to look out for?

JW: The first one that comes to mind is running back Jarquez Hunter. He had a slow start to the season but has played very well against Mississippi State, where he had 144 yards, and played a great game against Ole Miss before that. There’s not one specific receiver that stands out; against Mississippi State there were 12 players who caught a pass. The whole group’s balance is starting to get formed, and I would expect Auburn to rotate a lot of receivers to keep fresh legs out there. There’s a good mix of lengthy guys and speedsters, like Jay Fair and Ja’Varrius Johnson, who they love to use on crossing routes and seams. The group as a whole is really starting to find an identity. 

VH: What is your score prediction?

JW: 34-14, Auburn. I do think it will be close for a while with Auburn maybe getting off to a slow start on the road. I do see Thorne eventually settling in, though, and helping Auburn put up a decent amount of points.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Narenkumar Thirmiya
Narenkumar Thirmiya, Staff Photographer
Narenkumar Thirmiya ('24) is from Orlando, Fla., and is majoring in neuroscience and medicine, health, and society in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, he is streaming TV, playing the piano or guitar or exploring nature photography. You can reach him at [email protected].
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