Auburn winning despite defensive deficiencies

Opposing quarterbacks have been models of passing efficiency
against Auburn’s defense. When they’re not running over the
21st-ranked Tigers’ defenders, that is.

A defense that starts seven sophomores and has six freshmen
inserted as second-teamers ranks 111th nationally in total yards
allowed, 118th in run defense and last in the Southeastern
Conference in both categories. The Tigers can counter with the most
important number, of course: 2-0 after surviving a pair of
shootouts.

They have been able to overcome those defensive deficiencies
going into Saturday’s game at Clemson (2-0), much like they did
during last season’s national title run.

But that 2010 group was at least strong against the run and
could count on Nick Fairley to frequently smash quarterbacks and
ballcarriers. Mississippi State had two 100-yard rushers last
weekend, including quarterback Chris Relf, and bedeviled Auburn at
times with the option.

The Tigers insist they made substantial progress from Week 1
against Utah State.

”We played with more energy and we understood the defense
more,” defensive end Dee Ford said. ”Statistics don’t show it
because they came out in the option and they did a couple of things
that we didn’t expect and that of course we didn’t adjust to. But
we played with way more energy and we understood the defense better
and the pace of the game was a lot better.”

That progress, he said ”is going to continue.”

In fairness, the Tigers did stop the option the final time
Mississippi State tried it to polish off an end-of-game goal-line
stand. They allowed 531 yards in a game when 532 might have gotten
them beat.

Coach Gene Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof gave mixed
reviews for the defense’s play. The Bulldogs had 333 yards combined
in the first and last quarter against a team that has been
outgained by substantial margins in both wins.

”We played really good in some spurts,” Roof said. ”We were
much improved in some spurts. We had some spurts that were not
acceptable. We played more physical than we did a week before
against a quality opponent. There were peaks and valleys. We’ve got
to eliminate those valleys and keep working to eliminate some of
those mistakes so we can be a much better defense. We’ve got to get
better real quick this week.”

The peaks: That goal line tackle of Relf by reserve safety Ryan
Smith and stopping running back Vick Ballard behind the line on the
previous play. Plus, safety Demetruce McNeal returned an
interception for a touchdown.

The valleys: The aforementioned lapses early and late. Relf had
301 yards total offense and Ballard ran for 135 yards.

Plus Auburn’s defense is allowing opponents to convert 57
percent of their third down attempts and have allowed the first two
quarterbacks they’ve faced to post a gaudy pass rating of 180.40,
complete passes at a 72.3-percent clip and throw for five
touchdowns.

The Tigers had the league’s stingiest run defense last season,
giving up 16 touchdowns on the ground in 14 games. They’ve already
allowed seven rushing scores in two games.

A defensive line with four sophomore starters has also helped
lead the way to 16 tackles for loss already.

Clemson right tackle Landon Walker doesn’t expect much finesse
from Auburn.

”You run into the same kind of defense a lot with these
big-time teams,” Walker said. ”Plus in fall camp we’ve seen every
defense possible. At the same time, we look forward to a defense
that just sits still and says just beat us off the ball if you want
to win the game. That’s something I think we all look forward
to.

”There’s not many other ways to put it than if you’re going to
whip us, there’s going to be a lot of one-on-one battles. And if we
can win those, obviously it’s going to be a successful day.”