AUBURN, Ala. — The offensive line is never a unit that will garner much publicity.
But for Auburn, it has proven to be one of the most solid — if not the best all-around — position groups on the team through the first five games of 2013. And the numbers are there to bolster that argument. The Tigers’ big men up front have allowed just four sacks this season, the fewest in the Southeastern Conference. Not a single one of those sacks came this past weekend.
The fact quarterback Nick Marshall’s jersey was perfectly clean at the end Saturday’s game against Ole Miss was one of the biggest positives Rhett Lashlee took from the 30-22 victory.
“We challenged our guys really across the board, but especially up front, to be physical,” Auburn’s offensive coordinator said. “Be the more physical football game, and I really thought we were. I thought from start to finish up front, we were really trying to be physical. I think it showed as the game went on.”
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One Ole Miss defender the Tigers held in check was Robert Nkemiche. The true freshman defensive end was the consensus top prospect in the Class of 2013 and had already proved his worth on the field entering Saturday, as he was tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with four. He found it tough sledding against Auburn, however, finishing with just four total takedowns, none which included a sack or a tackle for loss.
Lashlee was proud the Tigers didn’t let the Georgia native become a disruptive force Saturday, but said his presence never forced the coaching staff to alter its game plan to specifically account for him, either.
“He's going to be a great player in this league, but we felt comfortable running at him or running away and reading him,” Lashlee said. “They've got guys up front. They're very active. They gave us multiple fronts, three or four different fronts. For the most part, we just ran our game plan, tried to go at good tempo. They were changing up.”
Ever the critical coach, Lashlee said there were still plenty of areas where the offensive line can improve.
The day the Tigers become complacent is the day they will start to regress, after all.
“When we look on film, there's little things here and there that we know if we had done better, that 4-yard gain would have been a 20-yard gain,” he said. “Or (we see a) negative play. And that's the way it always is every week.”
Johnson on Saturday’s sack attack: ‘We didn’t do a whole lot different’
The dominant defensive storyline that emerged from Saturday’s victory was the superb play of the line. The Tigers notched six sacks against the Rebels, their best showing since collecting 11 versus Alabama in the 2005 Iron Bowl.
So how did Auburn do it? What changes did it make to utterly flummox the Ole Miss offensive line?
The answer might qualify as a surprise.
“We didn't do a whole lot different,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “We slid our front different directions based on what we felt like the play tendency was. We played our base four-man front in most cases, just tried to slide it to where we felt like the most likely point of attack was going to be. I thought our front players just played better fundamentally and we played aggressively. They made a lot more plays just getting off of blocks and making tackles and so forth.”
Johnson credited Rodney Garner’s constant rotating — a staple of the defensive line coach’s philosophy — for making sure the Tigers always had fresh players on the field. And more often than not, it saw many of the more youthful faces on Auburn’s defensive line in prominent roles.
“He's bringing those young guys along and doing a heck of a job getting them ready,” Johnson said of Garner. “They're starting to feel comfortable in the system now — not just the physical elements, but they're starting to get comfortable with their assignments now, so they're getting more and more reps and they made some good plays for us.”