No. 10 Auburn hones survival skills in close games

Auburn has honed its survival skills with a series of

high-stress finishes.

Of course, the No. 10 Tigers might not find themselves in such

harrowing positions if they didn’t continue to dig early holes. The

past two weeks, Auburn has spotted Clemson 17 points and South

Carolina 13 in the first half, then come back to win.

”We still haven’t put together a game that we can really be

proud of from top to bottom,” coach Gene Chizik said Tuesday.

”We’ve put together some quarters that looked like the way Auburn

football ought to look.

”We’re trying to strive for a top-to-bottom, four-quarter game

but we haven’t arrived there yet.”

Luckily for the Tigers (4-0), those slow starts haven’t cost

them a game yet. But they’ve raised plenty of questions, such as

how can a team be so utterly dominant during some stretches of the

second half and so hapless and ineffective for much of the

first?

Chizik & Co. are still seeking answers going into Saturday’s

game against Louisiana-Monroe (1-2). It hasn’t kept them from

rising 12 spots in the Top 25 since the season started, or seven

spots with a 35-27 win over No. 19 South Carolina.

Eventually, living dangerously could catch up with the Tigers. A

road trip to Kentucky followed by games against No. 15 Arkansas and

No. 12 LSU follow the Louisiana-Monroe game.

Sometimes it’s the offense. The Tigers struggled to even get a

first down early against Clemson, falling behind 17-0. A 21-point

third-quarter surge erased that deficit en route to an overtime

win.

Other times it’s the defense. South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia

racked up 158 yards passing in the first half to build a 20-7 lead.

The Tigers wiped that out by forcing four turnovers in the final

quarter.

”We’ve made some good halftime adjustments,” Chizik said.

”But we haven’t played well, or at least nearly as well as we’d

like to play, in the first half of ball games as a team.”

Auburn also used a fourth-quarter defensive stand to survive

17-14 at Mississippi State to start the string of close games.

It’s not a terrible problem for the Tigers to have after they

failed to finish off several close games last season.

”It’s very important to finish strong,” defensive tackle Mike

Blanc said. ”Coach Chizik brought up a lot of examples from last

year where we had games won, but we just lost it in the fourth

quarter. This year, that’s something we definitely wanted to

capitalize on.

”When the fourth quarter’s coming around, we want to make sure

we’re doing the right things. It’s just the little things at the

end of the game where people win or they lose.”

Having a little more defensive depth, especially on the front

line, helps. Auburn has managed to batter quarterbacks the past two

weeks. Garcia was yanked from the game after losing two fumbles in

the fourth quarter, but the Tigers then intercepted freshman backup

Connor Shaw twice to end scoring threats.

”I think it’s good the way that we’ve had to be on the field at

the end of the last three ballgames, where it’s come down to the

last play,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. ”And I think

there’s a lot of value in that, when it keeps happening to us, to

build some confidence that we can shut the door and end the

football game.”

Chizik also likes what he sees from his players on the sidelines

while facing those early deficits.

”You don’t see the panic. You don’t see the body language

change,” he said. ”And of course that’s something that we preach

to them every day for the week and a half or whatever that we’ve

been here. But in the locker room at halftime, they know we’ve got

to come in, we’ve got to make some adjustments.

”Is it much different than last year? I don’t know if I can say

that. I just know that we were willing to fight and don’t look at

the scoreboard and keep playing to the end of the game.”