AUBURN — Settling into a game has been impossible for Auburn this season. The Tigers can roar all they want before kickoff but as soon as their opponent takes possession, the AU defense suffers a collective case of cat got your tongue.
Auburn’s opponents have scored three touchdowns, missed two field goals, fumbled at the goal line and punted once on game-opening drives so far this season.
That included a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive which included a pair of fourth-down conversions and spanned 8:25 last week by Vanderbilt.
“I think offenses are on script giving you a lot of
formations and tempo and we just don’t hold up to it well right now,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder
said after last week’s 17-13 loss to the Commodores which dropped Auburn to 1-6.
The trend of ineptitude when under pressure continues in the two-minute drill as well.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt made the closing minutes of the first half two minutes of dread and despair for the Auburn defense. The Rebels went 64 yards on nine plays in 1:00 and the Commodores went 65 yards on 11 plays in 1:15 as both scored game-tying field goals in the closing seconds of the first half in each of the past two weeks.
The inability to stop opponents who are on the run should be particularly worrisome for Auburn this week as the high-octane offense of Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2) rolls into town.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel is leading an Aggies offense which leads the SEC in total offense (524.6 yards), rushing (221.3 yards) and scoring (43 points) and is second in passing (303.3 yards).
“I think it presents a challenge to everybody, particularly in the secondary,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “Because what you see is if you’re not lined up properly in the secondary against a team that will throw the ball vertically down the field so much, that’s where you see guys running down the field wide open.”
Manziel has found those wide open receivers several times, throwing 14 touchdown passes to seven different receivers. When his wide outs are covered or by design, Manziel can run and pick up yards on his own.
Manziel has run or thrown for 40 plays of 20-plus yards in just seven games at the helm of the Aggies spread offense.
“I think the biggest concern is tempo. They’re so fast,” VanGorder said. “The thing about being fast, it just takes the player so much out of his routine and especially in our situation where spring ball, training camp, we had a huddle offense and so didn’t see that on a regular basis.
“They’re used to being able to take their time and see a lot and develop thought process. When it’s fast, they just don’t have the same opportunity so you’ve got to see a lot quickly. And you’ve got to quickly develop a thought process quickly and be able to execute your technique within scheme. It’s problematic.”
In an effort to prepare for an offense which has run 100-plus plays in a game, Auburn is utilizing two defensive huddles this week in practice. It was a technique Chizik and the Tigers used when preparing to take on Oregon in the 2010 BCS National Championship game.
“It’s definitely a challenge in practice to be able to get this done, but we feel like we’ve got a really good plan for it,” Chizik said. “That’s some of the stuff that we were able to accomplish preparing for the National Championship game two years ago. You’ve got to kind of get creative on how you’re going to do it. The efficiency of it in practice is very critical.
“At the end of the day when you’re working these situations where you’re going to try to get plays off anywhere from 12 to 17 seconds consecutively, you can’t do that all practice. But you can do it enough in segments of practice to really get the feel for it.”
Auburn is breaking in a new middle linebacker with freshman Cassanova McKinzy taking over the role from Jake Holland last week. There are also changes in personnel along the defensive line with defensive end Dee Ford recovering from an undisclosed injury and Gabe Wright taking over at defensive tackle for Jeffrey Whitaker who also had an undisclosed injury.
The Tigers secondary has been effective at times, limiting top SEC receivers for three straight weeks, but that unit does not have an interception yet this season.
Against Texas A&M’s spread, a lot of inexperienced players will have to stay composed after potentially giving up several big plays and the Tigers defense as a whole will need to be able to read-and-react far better under pressure than they’ve displayed this season.
“They’re definitely concerns,” VanGorder said. “We’ve got to get better in all those areas.”