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September 26, 2011

Up Next: Defensive woes on the Plains



At South Carolina, a sometimes dysfunctional offense has people talking.

But on the Plains, it's the defense, or the lack thereof, that has Auburn fans buzzing.

The Tigers enter Saturday's rematch (3:30 p.m., CBS) of the last December's SEC Championship game with a 3-1 record, but, like some Gamecock faithful, Auburn fans are shaking their heads.

Auburn averted disaster by somehow pulling out victories over Utah State (needed two touchdowns in the last couple of minutes to win, 42-38) and Mississippi State (goal-line stand preserved 41-34 win) in the first two weeks.

After that, they squandered a 21-7 lead at Clemson and was outscored, 31-3, over the final 2-1/2 quarters in a 38-24 loss.

Last week, they led woeful Florida Atlantic, 10-6, at halftime before erupting for 20 points in the third quarter. When the game was over, the Owls had more first downs (20-16) and almost as many total yards as Auburn (315-307).

When Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton left for the NFL, most people expected the Auburn offense would take a step backwards. And they have.

But few people contemplated what the impact of the loss of defensive tackle Nick Fairley would mean for an Auburn defense that finished first in the SEC in rushing defense in 2010. With Fairley dominating interior offensive linemen on just about every snap, opponents found it nearly impossible to run effectively on the Tigers.

Just ask Oregon, whose vaunted offense was shut down in the BCS national championship game last January.

This year, though, has been a totally different story for the Auburn defense. Through four games, Auburn is last in the SEC in total defense (477.5 ypg), scoring defense (31 ppg), rushing defense (226.5 ypg) and pass defense (251 ypg - but they were last in this category as year ago as well).

The topper? Auburn has allowed opponents to convert a staggering 59.4 percent of third-down opportunities (41-69) in 2011. The next closest team (Ole Miss) has allowed 43.1 percent of third downs. Even Florida Atlantic's anemic offense (three total points in the first two games) was 6-of-14 on third downs.

Yeah, life on the Plains isn't what it used to be.

By this point, Auburn coach Gene Chizik is looking for any ray of sunshine concerning his leaky defense since Auburn's next four SEC contests are against USC, Arkansas, Florida and LSU. Three of those four games are on the road. And they still have to face bitter rivals Georgia and Alabama in November.

"I don't think there's any question it was a step in the right direction," Chizik said Sunday during a teleconference with reporters. "It wasn't a step backward from the last time they were on the field, although there are still some things that we're not happy with. I thought they played hard. I thought they tried to be positioned in the right spots with the ability to make plays in those spots. Third downs was an improvement. They've got to make the plays on the ball. There's some baby steps forward that I thought we took that were in the right direction."

Unless they dramatically improve the offense, Auburn might have to scramble just to secure bowl eligibility one year after winning the BCS national championship.

Last year, Auburn held Marcus Lattimore to 117 rushing yards in two meetings, including 84 yards in the SEC Championship game.

"It's very hard to contain him, as we know," Chizik said. "Last year was last year and this year is this year. We've got to really go back and look and see what exactly they're doing, if anything, different with him. As we all know, he's very hard to contain. Our goal first and foremost is stop him in their running game, and we'll work from there."

How bad has the Auburn defense played? Florida Atlantic racked up 62 percent of their total offensive yards this season against the Tigers in last weekend's game.

Offensively, the numbers are better, of course, since they have one of the most talented running backs in the SEC in sophomore Michael Dyer - third in the conference in rushing with an average of 106.5 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry - and a workmanlike quarterback in Barrett Trotter.

With Dyer, Auburn is sixth in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 171.8 ypg. Last year, with Newton running roughshod over opponents, the Tigers averaged 284.8 yards on the ground. Consequently, Auburn has seen a decrease in production of 113 yards per game in the rushing department.

Every football coach worth his salt will tell you that's a lot of yards to make up.

Even Dyer struggled to find running room against FAU, finishing with 68 yards on 14 carries, an average of 4.9 yards per game. Overall, Auburn gained just 315 total yards against a Sunbelt Conference team.

Afterwards, Chizik pointed the finger mostly at the rebuilt offensive line, which had to replace four senior starters from 2010, though Trotter and the wide receivers were criticized as well.

"Offensive line-wise, I don't think we played physical," Chizik said. "Pass protection-wise, it wasn't always the offensive line. Sometimes it was the running back, sometimes it was the offensive line, sometimes it was just one guy getting beat. Sometimes the quarterback, the decision-making by the quarterback was very suspect. Just overall, it was all that. Some passes that should have been caught were dropped. Top to bottom, I just thought it was a very below average performance."

In four games, Trotter has thrown for 783 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 61.6 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns.

Without Newton and the senior-laden O-Line, the Auburn offense isn't clicking as efficiently as last season. The Tigers are eighth in the SEC in total offense (373.8 ypg) and seventh in passing offense (202.0 ypg).

"It's not rocket science to me or Gus (Malzahn)," Chizik said. "We've got to block better. We've got to make better decisions. We've got to throw and catch the ball. You saw us drop balls (Saturday) night. That doesn't happen. In the course of the last three years, that's very rare that you see dropped balls. Again, it's everything."

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