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With Auburn’s offense a ‘work in progress’, Tigers to lean on talented defense

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, usually guarded in his comments, was pretty direct in his evaluation of the Tigers’ offense following Auburn’s 24-6 win over Tulane.

Malzahn stressed that the Auburn offense is “still a work in progress,” a phrase he’s used more than once this season, and that the Tigers must run the ball better. On paper, the stats are not horrible: Bo Nix threw for 207 yards and a touchdown, JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow ran for 96 yards and a score and the Tigers covered the spread.

A double-digit win over a good Group of Five team is usually nothing to scoff at. Then again, that’s where things are with this Auburn offense.

Whitlow fumbled three times, two of which Tulane recovered. Nix missed several throws to open receivers (Nix said he “has to play better” after the game), and still needs time to gain chemistry with his wideouts.

But the main concern surrounded the run game. Auburn struggled to run the ball between the tackles Saturday night. It had just 20 rushing yards at halftime, which prompted Malzahn to call more outside runs and use different blocking schemes up front.

“Just really getting in second-and-6 or better just to get some positive plays where you can run or throw in those situations, really that’s been my main focus,” Malzahn said on Tuesday. “We’ve got to do better on first down. That will be the goal this week and if we do that, it’s going to help us in a lot of different areas with our young quarterback.”

Luckily for Malzahn, he won’t need to worry much about the other side of the ball, if these first two games are any indication. While the Tigers’ offense tries to find itself, the defense has shouldered the load.

Auburn’s defense, led by Marlon Davidson, has lived up to the high praise their head coach offered at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.

The Tigers held Tulane to 2-of-15 on third down and 0-of-2 on fourth down attempts. They held Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan to 103 yards and one interception. They didn’t get a sack, but hurried the quarterback four times.

The Tigers held an Oregon team that scored more than 70 points against Nevada to 4-of-14 on third down, sacked Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert three times and came up with a big fourth-down stop late in Auburn’s 27-21 win.

Davidson earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors following his six-tackle performance against Tulane. Jeremiah Dinson’s third-quarter interception was the Tigers’ first of the season. The Tigers are getting to the quarterback, though they’ll be trying to get there a split second sooner.

That’s about the only criticism the Tigers have for their defense — excluding punt return defense, which is every bit a work in progress as the offense. Through two games, Auburn ranks eighth nationally in third down conversion percentage defense. It ranks 31st in total defense.

Barring a Florida State or Tennessee-like meltdown, Saturday’s home game, which kicks off at 7 p.m. EST should offer Nix and the Tigers’ offense some time to gel. Kent State’s lone FBS opponent so far this year, Arizona State, beat the Golden Flashes by 23 points.

It’ll also be Nix’s last chance to get in a rhythm with his receivers before experiencing a true road environment. Receiver Seth Williams is out for the Kent State game and the Tigers travel to Texas A&M on September 21.

Auburn will need its defense to play at the same level when it faces the Aggies: AT&T Stadium is no Kyle Field when it comes to raucous crowds and head coach Jimbo Fisher can put together a solid offensive game plan against the toughest of opponents.

“I think we have a chance to be the best defense since I’ve been here,” Malzahn said, reiterating the point he made at SEC Media Days. “I think that still holds true … Our guys are playing with an edge.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.
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