Auburn seeking balance, more physical play
The Auburn offense is a bit of an enigma.
The 17th-ranked Tigers have run nearly three times more than they've passed and the offensive line is the most experienced group on the team. Yet the biggest complaint from coach Gene Chizik is they aren't playing physically enough to control the line of scrimmage going into Saturday night's game against No. 12 South Carolina.
''I feel like we need to be playing more physical,'' Chizik said Tuesday. ''I don't feel like there's any secret. We've had that discussion over the last two days. I think they know it, we know it, they have to fix it. If we're going to win the football game Saturday, that's going to be part of the equation that we got that fixed.''
So far Auburn (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) has managed to overcome it - barely. Now, they're facing one of the league's sturdiest defenses, which could be even stronger with the expected return of linebacker Shaq Wilson from injury.
The Tigers were pushed around in the first half of the Clemson game in falling behind 17-0 and faltered twice on third-and-2 with a 4-yard loss and an incomplete pass. In the fourth quarter, Auburn drove to midfield in a tie game but quarterback Cameron Newton was tackled for a 2-yard loss on yet another third-and-2.
The Tigers managed to win in overtime, but left frustrated.
''We can't continuously put ourselves in the situation we have been,'' Newton said. ''Sooner or later, our luck will run out.''
An offensive line with four seniors and 121 combined starts takes Chizik's message on getting more physical a little personally.
''We accept the challenge,'' guard Byron Isom said. ''We're very focused on that this week. It's really a challenge when he puts it on you. You just have to respond. It kind of hurts a little bit, but you can't get down on yourself. We're definitely going to respond to that.''
Do Chizik's comments bother left tackle Lee Ziemba? Nope.
''I've seen the same film he has,'' Ziemba said. ''We definitely need to be more physical up front to win ballgames. That's showed up big time.''
The Tigers have got a tough opponent to take on in that regard. South Carolina (3-0, 1-0) ranks in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring defense and run defense, allowing 12.7 points and 59.7 rushing yards a game.
The Gamecocks haven't allowed a first-half touchdown yet.
Plus, Wilson is expected to play for the first time this season following a hamstring injury early in preseason camp. He led the Gamecocks in tackling last year. Fellow linebacker Rodney Paulk said his return would ''be real big'' ahead of facing Newton & Co.
''He is the quarterback of the defense and to have him back would be a major extra point to have for us,'' Paulk said. ''If you talk with him, he's feeling real good right now and expects to play this weekend.''
The statistics don't necessarily indicate what the fuss is all about for Auburn. Yes, the Tigers lead the SEC and rank 12th nationally in rushing. And they're tops in the nation in pass efficiency, thanks largely to a nation's best 11.8-yard average per completion and a touchdown on nearly one of every seven throws.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton has produced some big plays in the passing game, but he has run 50 times and passed only 47. None of Auburn's tailbacks have even carried 40.
''We're preparing for an even match, run and pass,'' South Carolina safety DeVonte Holloman said.
But Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier would like to see Newton have to fling the ball around more than he has.
''We have to stop the run first and get him throwing the ball,'' Spurrier said. ''We also have to hold onto him. He can shake an arm or a hand if someone is trying to tackle him like that. You have to get a good grasp on a quarterback that's big and strong and elusive.''
In the passing game, Newton hasn't had great protection. He has been sacked five times and forced to run on many other occasions. Not many targets have stepped up consistently. Only Darvin Adams has had multiple receptions in more than one game, and he's responsible for a third of the wide receivers' catches.
''He's made some really good throws into some tight areas,'' Chizik said. ''We've got to give him time to throw and we've got to get some more receivers open. That's the gameplan.''