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.”