Hugh Freeze era begins as Auburn hosts UMass

Field Level Media

August 30, 2023 at 6:26 pm.

The Hugh Freeze era will begin Saturday afternoon when Auburn hosts UMass in its season opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Freeze enters his first season on the Plains after successful head coaching stints at Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Liberty. One of the first orders of business for Freeze this offseason was to rebuild the Tigers through the transfer portal.

Michigan State graduate transfer Payton Thorne is one of several newcomers expected to make a major impact on an Auburn roster that was completely overhauled.

Thorne, a two-time team captain for the Spartans, beat out Robby Ashford for the starting quarterback job and is poised to make an immediate impact on a team that finished 5-7 overall (2-6 SEC) a year ago. In 26 starts for MSU, Thorne passed for 6,494 yards and 49 touchdowns. Ashford is still expected to have a role in the offense, but he’s questionable for Saturday’s game due to an oblique strain.

Freeze has been impressed with Thorne’s physical attributes as well as his attention to detail within the offense.

“He wants to have the mental part of the game totally down,” Freeze said.

If Auburn wants to improve on last year’s record it will need to improve in the trenches. Freeze and his staff made the offensive and defensive lines a priority in the offseason, but he has yet to see how those players respond on gameday.

The Tigers have been running the ball effectively in fall camp and Jarquez Hunter (688 yards and seven TDs a year ago) leads a talented, deep and versatile group of runners. But until Freeze sees the running game in action, he’ll wait to assess what he has there.

“I don’t know, I honestly don’t,” said Freeze when asked about the ground attack. “We’ll find out more Saturday. Are we effective running the ball against other opponents? Or has our defense made us look good?”

UMass (1-0) opened its season with a 41-30 win at New Mexico State under second-year head coach Don Brown.

Taisun Phommachanh, an athletic dual threat, passed for 192 yards and ran for a team-high 96 yards and a score in the win over the Aggies. Phommachanh previously played at Georgia Tech and Clemson before transferring to UMass.

Kay’Ron Lynch-Adams and Anthony Simpson were also key players in the Minutemen’s offensive attack. Lynch-Adams had 15 carries for 79 yards and two touchdowns, while Simpson added a team-high three reception for 65 yards and a 10-yard scoring run.

UMass allowed 470 total yards against New Mexico State, but it forced three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and recorded three sacks.

Isaiah Rutherford (55-yard pick-six) and Tyler Rudolph (team-high eight tackles and a sack) are veteran defenders who stood out in the win over the Aggies.

Saturday’s game will mark the first meeting between Auburn and UMass.