What happens when a resistible force meet a movable object?
We’ll find out Saturday in Baton Rouge when two once-proud units that are a shadow of their former selves — LSU’s running game and Auburn’s run defense — try not to be the reason for their team’s demise.
It’s been an unusual year for both groups. Despite a stable of running backs led by the powerful Charles Scott, LSU’s ground game has been stuck in neutral, ranking 89th nationally at 123.8 yards per game, its lowest total in a decade.
To find a worse Auburn rushing defense, you have to go back 30 years to 1979. The Tigers are allowing 181.4 yards per game, ranking 99th nationally and nearly last in the SEC. Only Kentucky is worse by less than a yard a game.
“In this league you know that stopping the run will be a challenge,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “Everyone in the SEC will run the ball. … We have to be able to hold up. It can’t be for three quarters, it needs to be for all four.”
The numbers are puzzling on both sides. LSU, the ninth-ranked team in the country, has all the pieces for an effective running game, starting with Scott, a 234-pound bruiser who ran for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
His backup, the balanced Keiland Williams, was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. And scatback Trindon Holliday, while slight at 5-foot-5, has world class speed, the reigning NCAA champion in the 100-yard dash after clocking a time of 10.0 seconds at the 2009 NCAA Outdoor meet.
That’s not to mention an offensive line led by left tackle Ciron Black, a preseason All-American, and mobile quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who is capable of running the ball.
So far that group hasn’t live up to it expectations. Scott has only 327 yards in six games, averaging 12.5 carries per contest, hardly the workhorse everyone expected entering the season. He has two touchdowns, both coming against Georgia.
But Auburn has vivid memories of Scott’s ability to take over a game. He became the first player in LSU history to top 100 yards at Auburn last year, finishing with 132 in a 26-21 win when both teams were ranked in the top 10.
“If you just go back to the Georgia game on the run he made to win the game, I mean, he’s running through linebackers,” Chizik said. “This is a powerful, very fast guy. So I don’t know what the numbers necessarily do or don’t indicate, but I know that he’s an extremely good tailback and can do it all. He’s fast, he’s got speed, but he’s definitely powerful.”
Fortunately for LSU, Auburn has been a cure-all for running backs across the SEC of late.
Arkansas’ Michael Smith had only 180 yards in his first four games before running for 145 against Auburn two weeks ago. Neither Derrick Locke nor Randall Cobb of Kentucky had ever had a 100-yard game in their careers prior to last week, when both topped the century mark at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Coaches maintain that Auburn’s players have been in position to make tackles; they’re just not making them.
As for why, there are plenty of theories, most notably that a lack of depth at linebacker and in the secondary is forcing starters to play the entire game, leading to fatigue and sloppy tackling. The fact that the Tigers shut down Kentucky’s running game for three quarters before allowing 142 rushing yards in the fourth quarter supports that.
Linebacker Josh Bynes isn’t buying fatigue as a reason for poor tackling, however.
“Making a tackle has nothing to do with you being tired,” he said. “It’s how you tackle them, the way you tackle them. We were just missing them. We were there a lot of times. It was, ‘How in the world are do you miss them? Is it magic or something?’”
Stopping the run will be of utmost importance for Auburn on Saturday, especially considering that with Jefferson under center, LSU’s passing game has floundered this year. The Tigers are averaging 171.2 passing yards a game, a figure that ranks 105th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
“LSU is going to run the football first,” Bynes said. “That’s what you’ve seen all year: A lot of teams that have been hanging with LSU have been penetrating their gaps, stopping their runs. The key to the game is to try to let the quarterback beat us.”