AUBURN, Ala. — Numbers can be deceiving.
Take, for instance, how many missed tackles Auburn had in its loss to LSU last Saturday: 12. That statistic was the team’s official tally after reviewing film of the 35-21 defeat, according to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
Doesn’t that number seem a tad low when it seemed LSU’s offense moved the ball at will in the first half?
Johnson said there was a valid reason it was far fewer than most would have expected. It wasn’t because his players actually made the tackle.
They were simply never close enough to make it in the first place.
“It's like my little boy coming home and saying, 'Dad, I didn't have any errors today,' but he never went after the ball,” Johnson said. “You see some of those great players and major leaguers have an error because they're the only guy who can get to that ball. We have some guys that were not in position to miss a tackle.”
That led right into what Johnson viewed as a far larger issue: missed assignments. In his estimation, the defense had 17 missed assignments in its first loss of the season. While Johnson said that number is “not unheard of,” depending on the quality of the opponent, it can be devastating.
LSU was one such foe.
“LSU is a very good football team, probably a lot better up front than we anticipated,” Johnson said. “I thought they played extremely well. We were sometimes our own worst enemy.”
Despite the 21 points and numerous big plays it allowed in the first two quarters, Johnson said the missed assignments weren’t confined to the first half.
“They were different times,” he said. “The big one was the pass down the middle and then we had one other one. The guys came out of a zone coverage on that 32-yard touchdown pass. Two guys not holding zone jumped a guy man-to-man and opened up a window. Things like that, just little things, causes these trash plays.”
Johnson said his game plan didn’t emphasize pressuring quarterback Zach Mettenberger, preferring to bring blitzes when he saw an opening.
“We tried to mix it up and drop eight and bring a little pressure as a mixture,” Johnson said. “(We) got a good play out of dropping eight one time. We ran it again at the beginning of the fourth quarter and two guys wander out of their coverage in their zone and bust the coverage and we give up a 32-yard touchdown. There are some good things we can build on. We still make some mistakes that are self-inflicted, assignments, things that have been covered. We have to get more consistent with it.”
Counterpart Rhett Lashlee was similarly frustrated. The offensive coordinator deemed Auburn’s first-half showing “abysmal.”
“We didn't give our team a chance to win the way we played and performed in the first half offensively, so that's very disappointing,” he said. “And of course, the turnovers and the penalties at crucial times. It's unacceptable, and it's something that's got to be corrected.”
But much as Johnson did, Lashlee was proud of the way the offense fought back against the sixth-ranked team in the country.
“It was 21-0 (and) against a top-five, top-10 team in an environment like that, it's real easy to let go of the rope,” he said. “Things get really out of hand quick and in a hurry, and to our guys' credit, I saw the same look in their eyes that we saw against Mississippi State, saw the same look in their eyes at halftime.”
Lashlee also didn’t shy away from the fact quarterback Nick Marshall continued to overthrow open receivers, admitting “it was no secret” the junior signal-caller struggled.
The coach didn’t believe Marshall should shoulder all of the blame, though.
“We had some drops too,” he said. “We weren't throwing and catching the ball well. I don't know what the reason for that is. In the second half we settled down and did a much better job. But bottom line is we've got to be more consistent, and if we're going to win against top-5, top-10 teams, you've got to play four quarters and be more consistent in the passing game.”
CBS has elected to utilize its six-day selection window for the weekend of Oct. 5, which affects Auburn’s home game against Ole Miss. If CBS selects that game, it will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET. If the network goes in another direction — Arkansas at Florida and Georgia at Tennessee are the other possibilities — Auburn/Ole Miss will begin at 7 p.m. ET and will air on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. It was announced on Monday that kickoff for Auburn’s homecoming game against Western Carolina will be 2 p.m. ET. The game will air Oct. 12 on pay-per-view.