Auburn not satisfied with defense despite 2-0 start

Even though defense came through at the end, giving up 531 yards never bodes well.

Dee Ford wears a team-issued orange and navy bracelet that says “HTW,” for “hold the wheel.”

He won’t divulge exactly what it means. Industry secret.

But the Auburn junior defensive end gave a close approximation of its significance Sunday night.

“Hold the wheel. You never give up,” Ford said. “What we can learn from this game is trust in our coaches and players to just execute and play. Don’t listen to outside distractions.
“Though, of course, the whole world said we couldn’t do it.”

Auburn’s defense gave up 531 yards to Mississippi State on Saturday but stopped the Bulldogs inches short of the 532nd, the one that would have given the visitors a chance to tie or win the game.

The Tigers have given up 72 points, 979 yards and let their first two opponents convert on 56.8 percent of their third-down opportunities.

Auburn ranks 118th in the nation in rush defense, 111th in total defense and 115th in third-down defense, but it remains tied for first in win percentage.

When it gets to crunch time, the Tigers’ defense has been able to “hold the wheel.”

So far.

“There were peaks and valleys,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said of his unit’s performance against the Bulldogs. “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 Tigers’ defensive shortcomings have shown through the most in two areas: third downs and the ground game.

Mississippi State converted 11-of-20 third downs Saturday, including five conversions of 9 yards or longer, with three coming through the air and two on the ground.

Through two games, opponents have converted 21-of-37 third downs and 4-of-4 fourth downs.

“We’ve got to make a play. I’ve got to get them a better call. It’s a combination of all of us,” Roof said. “It’s something we’re working hard at. If we got off the field on some of those third-and-longs, the tone of the game is completely different.”

Mississippi State also exposed Auburn’s ground game shortcomings, doing most of its damage on option runs to the perimeter, but also finding plenty of real estate between the tackles when it needed to.

The Bulldogs rushed for 333 yards against Auburn, the first opponent to eclipse the 300 mark since Arkansas put up 426 in 2002.

Sophomore defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker said the ground growing pains are due at least in part to the Tigers finding their rotation on the front.

Auburn cycled in 11 players in its front four for the second straight week.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go, but there’s a positive long way to go,” Whitaker said. “We’re not there yet, and it’s just scary where we could be. Only thing is just keep working on the small details.

“It’ll get better.”

Roof and head coach Gene Chizik feel like it’s already started.

Roof said the team showed more good spurts in Week 2 than it did in Week 1, and Chizik felt the group as a whole made improvements.

When you put the numbers in context, Chizik said, against a team coming off two straight 50-point appearances, Auburn’s defense didn’t fare terribly.

“Are we happy with the outcome yesterday in terms of how we played top to bottom? Absolutely not,” Chizik said. “If you look at the big picture, going back to last year, they’re good on offense. Great game to win. Lots of teaching moments in there.

“We’re looking for something much better than what we’re getting.”

So, apparently, it’s back to the drawing board for the second straight week for the Auburn defense.

But it’s a drawing board that has produced two straight wins, mainly because the young Tigers defense has made stops when it absolutely had to.

Chizik will take that every week.

The former defensive coordinator just won’t be overjoyed about it.

“I’ll take the win any way I can get it, but obviously you always want to play great defense,” Chizik said. “When you’re not playing great defense you just keep working every day to try to shore it up.

“We’re in the third game now, and the young guys have played two games. I fully expect our defense to be better.”

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