AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn coach Gene Chizik has a top-10 team, an unbeaten record for the second straight September, a quarterback who is one of the most electrifying players in the SEC and a defense that’s made giant strides.
Yet something about this year’s group gnaws at his coaching sensibilities.
“We still haven’t put together a game that we can really be proud of top to bottom,” Chizik said.
“We put together some quarters that look like that’s the way Auburn football ought to look. But to say that we’ve put together a complete game that looks that way yet, I don’t think we have.”
It’s nit-picking, particularly given the No. 10 Tigers’ 4-0 start, with mettle-testing wins against Mississippi State, Clemson and South Carolina, but Chizik sees plenty of room for growth.
“I think we’re better each game at certain things and then something else pops up that is glaring that we’re not very good at,” he said. “It again goes back to the consistency message that I’ve been saying since Day 1.”
The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing (278.0 ypg) and are second in total offense (468.0 ypg) — numbers that put them in the top-20 nationally — but they have been prone to long, unproductive stretches.
Auburn has been held to a field goal or less in five quarters this year. Last season through four games, it happened once. Coaches attribute it to mostly execution.
“It’s always one guy out of 11,” wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “It takes 11 guys on offense to make the play perfect. One guy can screw it up and ruin the whole deal.”
Part of the problem has been penalties. Auburn has been flagged 27 times for 233 yards this season, the 10th-worst mark in the SEC.
The offense has been guilty of 12 penalties — including five false starts and four holds that were accepted — despite an offseason emphasis to eliminate such mistakes.
“I still think it’s very salvageable,” Chizik said. “We’ve just got to be more focused and we’ve got to be more disciplined. How you coach that? You’ve just got to keep reinforcing it and reinforcing it and trying to get it on a daily basis.”
Defensively, Chizik had a list of gripes. Although the Tigers were successful in shutting down South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore (14 carries, 33 yards), they allowed Gamecocks quarterbacks to throw for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
“It was guys being out of position or their eyes weren’t in the right spot,” Chizik said. “Quarterback scrambles where the guy lost containment and he bought another 2 1/2 seconds to throw the ball. There was glaring things all over the defense in my opinion.”
Missed tackles remain a problem. Linebacker Daren Bates recalled a play he whiffed on Lattimore, leading to extra yardage.
“I was just trying to take the kill shot,” said Bates, who is still adjusting to pursuit angles as a linebacker instead of a safety. “When we’re watching film, coach said you can’t every time try to take the kill shot. He just took a little sidestep. We just break down and try to make the tackle now.”
Chizik, who called the problems “fixable,” has been hesitant to buy into his team’s success during the last two seasons.
While his recent criticisms could very well be a coaching ploy to keep the Tigers motivated for their game Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe, Chizik maintains it’s about showing improvement.
“I really believe that every week it’s never about the opponent necessarily,” he said. “Our message to our team is that we have to focus on getting Auburn better.”