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Robby Ashford runs for 3 touchdowns and Hugh Freeze gets win in debut as Auburn's head coach 59-14

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Robby Ashford rushed for three first-half touchdowns as Auburn defeated UMass 59-14 on Saturday in Hugh Freeze’s debut as the Tigers’ head coach.

Ashford, the Tigers’ 2022 starting quarterback, was used in red-zone packages to complement new starter and Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne. Thorne threw for 141 yards and a touchdown in his Auburn (1-0) debut.

“Obviously, you always want to be the starter,” Ashford said. “But Payton’s done a great job, and I look at him like a brother. We come out there every day and just know we’re out here to make each other better and do whatever we can to help this team win.”

Damari Alston scored a rushing touchdown on the Tigers’ first drive, while freshman Jeremiah Cobb broke a 42-yard touchdown run on the second carry of his college career. The Tigers rushed for 294 yards.

Alston started at running back in place of junior Jarquez Hunter, the team’s top returner in rushing yards. Hunter did not dress out Saturday, and he missed Auburn’s first several practices in August for undisclosed reasons.

Auburn’s defense recorded two takeaways and stopped UMass twice on fourth down in the victory. Jaylin Simpson returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown and recovered a fumble forced by fellow defensive back Donovan Kaufman.

“It was good to see our defense play hard,” Freeze said. “I thought we played harder than we have in the scrimmages and than we did in the first possession. I thought we started to show a little passion.”

UMass (1-1) scored a touchdown on its first possession of the game but was unable to put up any more points until the fourth quarter. Kay’Ron Adams led the Minutemen with 101 rushing yards, while backup quarterback Carlos Davis found Arizona transfer receiver Anthony Simpson for a late 58-yard touchdown.

“Not a good day to be a UMass Minuteman, for sure,” UMass head coach Don Brown said. “But I really believe our guys, we will rebound, we will practice hard, and we will back next week ready to go.”

PLENTY OF FRESH FACES

More than half of the scholarship players on Auburn’s 2023 roster weren’t on the team last year, including Thorne and Cobb.

Thirteen of the Tigers’ 22 offensive and defensive starters Saturday were newcomers, which several players believe contributed to the slower start Saturday.

“We’ve got a ton of new guys, new coaching staff,” said outside linebacker Elijah McAllister, who transferred from Vanderbilt this offseason. “It was our first time playing with each other, so we kind of got acclimated and settled in.”

A RECORD CROWD

Freeze’s debut came in front of the largest home crowd in Auburn history, as the Tigers announced an attendance of 88,043 on Saturday. Auburn added new seating inside Jordan-Hare Stadium this summer to expand from its long-time capacity of 87,451.

“To see our largest student crowd ever and largest crowd ever, it’s just quite humbling,” Freeze said. “I just can’t say enough about their support and what that means to our players, our staff, our administration, everybody here at Auburn. It just speaks to the love and passion of the Auburn family.”

THE TAKEAWAY

UMass: The Minutemen were able to hit the Tigers for several big plays but just didn’t have the depth or athleticism to truly compete with an SEC team after the first quarter.

Auburn: The Tigers struggled to pass and stop the run early, which were both problems from last season. But second-half improvement in both areas — and the overall success of the rushing attack without Hunter — were positive signs.

UP NEXT

UMass: Hosts Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 9.

Auburn: Visits California on Sept. 9.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll