Both teams 2-0 and known for power offense, quick defense
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — After two decisive wins, 1,145 yards of offense and an increasing amount of praise on a national scale, Gene Chizik still refuses to buy stock in his Auburn Tigers, not until they prove themselves against some top-notch competition.
West Virginia would seem to fit the bill.
The Tigers (2-0) host the Mountaineers (2-0) at Jordan-Hare Stadium tonight at 7:45 on ESPN2. The battle is between two teams possessing high-powered offenses and quick-to-the ball defenses, both on the cusp of cracking the national polls.
“I think that after Saturday night we will have another step in the direction of knowing who we are,” Chizik said. “Because again, we are a work in progress and I’m not sure who we are yet.”
If Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State were warm-up acts, West Virginia, which is 44-9 in its last 53 games and has won five straight against SEC teams dating back to 2000, is the headliner in Auburn’s first month of the season.
Not that the Tigers need to be reminded of what they’re up against. West Virginia erased a 17-3 deficit against Auburn in Morgantown, W.Va., last October to run away with a 34-17 victory, one of the first indications that Tommy Tuberville, even without Tony Franklin as a distraction on his staff, was going to have a hard time pulling his team out of a tailspin in the season’s second half.
Auburn’s normally reliable defense was exposed, getting pushed back at the point of attack while watching Noel Devine run for a career-best 207 yards.
“We got out-physicaled, and we didn’t finish,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “That’s all they did in the second half. We were getting worn out, and we didn’t tackle their guys.”
The Tigers, who rank second in the country with 345.5 rushing yards per game, hope to return the favor.
Auburn has worn down its opponents in the first two games, using its big offensive line to create holes for the 1-2 punch of Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb, who rank first and second, respectively, in the SEC in rushing yards per game.
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan’s fast-paced offense has taken its toll on defenses in the second half. Auburn has out-scored its opponents 45-10 after halftime, holding a 632-228 advantage in total yardage.
“It’s good to see a different defense get tired out there,” Auburn cornerback Walt McFadden said. “Because they do it to us sometimes during practice, and the second-team just be laughing at us. It’s good to be laughing at a different defense on the other sideline.”
Overall, the Tigers rank fourth in the country in total offense with 572.5 yards a game, confusing defenses with their pace, misdirection and alignments, particularly the Kodi Burns-led Wildcat formation, which has accounted for five touchdowns this season.
“It is fun to watch when you are not playing them,” West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said.
But West Virginia has weapons of its own. Quarterback Jarrett Brown has accounted for 719 yards of total offense this season, sixth-most in the country.
Seven different receivers/tight ends have caught passes this year, led by the speedy Jock Sanders. And Devine, as Auburn is aware, can be a game-changer.
“You tackle him a few times, then he makes you miss and hits a crack, then the next thing you know he’s hitting his head on the goal post,” Chizik said. “I mean, that’s how fast he gets in the end zone.”
Through two games, Auburn has averaged 43 points per game, while West Virginia has averaged 34.
“I see a track meet,” Stewart said.
The winner should get a big boost. Auburn, like West Virginia, is in the “Others Receiving Votes” category this week in both The Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches’ polls, meaning a strong showing, particularly from an offense that’s starting to gain national acclaim, could return the Tigers to the spotlight.
“We ain’t worried about that,” Bynes said. “They didn’t want to talk about us, so now I don’t really care.”