AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers didn't have their star tailback or a top receiving threat. Things got tougher when another standout runner went down with an injury.
The 12th-ranked Tigers didn't let suspensions or that injury to tailback Kerryon Johnson spoil quarterback Jarrett Stidham's debut in a 41-7 victory over Georgia Southern on Saturday night.
Stidham threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score and a smothering defense was more than enough to overcome overcome three turnovers — including a fumble returned for a touchdown. Johnson sustained an apparent right hamstring injury in the first half. Top runner Kamryn Pettway, wide receiver Kyle Davis and backup quarterback Sean White were held out for undisclosed reasons.
"That's completely between me and them," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. Pettway and Davis will be back against Clemson, and White will miss another game.
Johnson pulled up short on what appeared destined to be his second long touchdown of the first half. He left with an apparent right hamstring injury and didn't return after gaining 136 yards with a 60-yard touchdown scamper. Malzahn didn't offer an update on his status.
Keep Calm & Kerryon.
60 yards. TO THE HOUSE! pic.twitter.com/wjRt8DgnI7
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 3, 2017
Stidham scored on a 14-yard run and passed for 19-yard touchdowns to Ryan Davis and Will Hastings in the opener for both teams. He finished 14-of-24 passing for 185 yards with an interception in a much-anticipated debut after beating out White, a 16-game starter.
"I was thrilled to be back out there," Stidham said. "I've got to get a lot better personally and as an offense collectively."
The former Baylor quarterback had one rough sequence when a pass was batted and almost intercepted behind the line, a forced throw across the middle was picked off and a fumble was returned for a touchdown. Chris DeLaRosa jarred the ball loose from Stidham with a blind-side hit and linebacker Tomarcio Reese scooped and scored from 22 yards out.
Auburn third-team tailback Kam Martin had a big day, with a 36-yard touchdown and a 61-yard run. He gained 136 yards on 14 carries to match Johnson. It capped a week when the player from Port Arthur, Texas, dealt with his family getting stuck in their home because of Hurricane Harvey and the death of an aunt who couldn't get out to her dialysis treatments.
"I brought a lot of smiles," Martin said, sporting a Texas Tough T-shirt. "I just checked my phone and everybody's happy. They were like, 'You did it for the city.'"
The Tigers outgained Georgia Southern and its triple option attack 535-78 in total yards.
"Our defense was unbelievable," Malzahn said. "They were outstanding. That triple option scares you to death."
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) September 3, 2017
Georgia Southern coach Tyson Summers said the game will be a learning experience.
"I still think we have a chance to be a very good offense this year," Summer said. "That is as good of a defense as probably anywhere in the country. We didn't play very well. We had chances and didn't follow through."
GEORGIA SOUTHERN: The Eagles couldn't muster much of an offense against the Tigers, failing to get points even after recovering a fumble at Auburn's 34 in the second half. Redshirt freshman quarterback Shai Werts didn't get much time to throw or room to run in his first college game. He passed for 8 yards and ran for 16 on 23 carries.
AUBURN: Stidham wasn't perfect in his first game after being sidelined for 651 days, but the Auburn offense also isn't as effective without the bulldozing Pettway. A defense that was the strength of last year's team looked strong again. The Tigers racked up five sacks and 12 tackles for loss and made a fourth-and-goal stop in the final quarter.
The absence of White and Pettway gave chances to both Martin and walk-on quarterback Devin Adams. Adams entered in the fourth quarter instead of freshman Malik Willis, who had a strong spring but may be in line for a redshirt year.
DANIEL'S DAY: Two-time Lou Groza Award finalist Daniel Carlson had a mixed day. He started with a 50-yard field goal but also missed a 53-yarder and a 46-yarder. He's 9-of-14 from 50-plus yards in his career.
Georgia Southern returns home to face New Hampshire.
Auburn visits defending national champion Clemson, which won last year's opening matchup 19-13.