Ho-hum opponent, but work still to do
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Like every football coach in the country, Auburn’s Gene Chizik refuses to admit to looking ahead on the schedule, not wanting his players to follow suit.
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So when the subject came up this week about getting some of the Tigers’ star players rested for the heart of the SEC season, Chizik didn’t bite, not with Ball State scheduled to arrive at Jordan-Hare Stadium tonight.
“If it was a perfect world and it ended up that way, we would be OK with it, but we’re certainly not looking at it like that,” Chizik said. “We prepare for every game to be a last-two-minutes-of-the-game win, and this won’t be any different.”
It likely won’t be that close. Despite the standard coach speak, Auburn (3-0) enters today’s game as a 33-point favorite against the Cardinals (0-3). Without coach Brady Hoke and quarterback Nate Davis, who both left in the offseason, Ball State is a shell of the team that started last season 12-0.
The Tigers have won both of their games against Ball State: 30-0 in 2000 and 63-3 in 2005.
In its history, Auburn never has lost to any current member of the Mid-American Conference, winning all six of those games by a combined score of 238-37.
“The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter,” Chizik said. “We have 12 games to play, and whether you are playing the MAC, the Big East or the SEC, you have to show up ready to play. It doesn’t matter who we would like to play, we have to be ready for whoever our opponent is.”
Auburn’s focus remains on fixing its problems, a laundry list of items, according to Chizik.
Defensively, the Tigers have struggled with their tackling and on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 46.5 percent of the time. Auburn ranks 112th nationally in that category.
Offensively, coordinator Gus Malzahn still would like to see a faster pace. And on special teams, particularly on the return units, Chizik thinks the Tigers are losing what he called “hidden yardage” with their average play.
“The coaching staff and I are perfectionists,” Chizik said. “We still haven’t had that perfect game, and we know that it is hard to come by. … So, from our standpoint, we still have a lot of room for improvement.”
Tonight should provide the Auburn coaching staff the perfect opportunity to get some of the less-experienced players valuable playing time before the Tigers begin SEC play in earnest when October starts, with five straight conference games: at Tennessee, at Arkansas, home against Kentucky, at LSU and home against Mississippi.
That is especially true in the receiving corps, where freshmen who were expected to play a major role in the offense — most notably DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake — rarely have played.
Besides starters Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery, the only receivers to catch passes this year are Jay Wisner (2 catches, 40 yards) and Kodi Burns (2 catches, 10 yards).
On defense, several players have turned in iron-man efforts during the first few weeks, rarely coming off the field. While linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens have thrived in the expanded role (they rank 1-2 on the team in tackles after combining for 23 last week), they will need more time to catch their breath against the better competition coming.
“It’s going to be a rough five-week stretch here, and we know that,” Chizik said. “So, I think that everybody that can step up to the plate here has got to — the Harris Gastons, the Jonathan Evanses, the receivers. Everybody that can come in right now and give some of these guys that have played so many snaps a chance to know that they don’t have to play 85 snaps a game, I think that’s huge.
“It’s great for team morale too. The more guys that play, the better it is for your team. So, some of those young guys have got to come on.”