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Auburn football: Tigers’ defense not playing up to its standards

November 15, 2018

AUBURN — There have still been moments when Auburn’s defense looks like the dominant unit that Kevin Steele has developed it to be over the past three seasons. Even in games the team ended up losing.

The Tigers held an Ole Miss offense averaging nearly 38 points a game out of the end zone until the final minutes of a 31-16 win Oct. 20. They held Texas A&M scoreless on its final six drives, paving the way for a come-from-behind victory 28-24 on Nov. 3.

There are even positives to be taken away from a 27-10 loss at Georgia this past Saturday, even if the final result was negative — Auburn held the Bulldogs to field goals on its first two trips inside the 5-yard line and allowed points on only one of five second-half drives.

But sometimes, as senior middle linebacker Deshaun Davis said after the game in Athens, “We’ll do things that you’re just like, ‘What the heck?’”

Auburn’s defense has done more of that than usual over the second half of the season. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 195 yards and Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano threw for a career-high 328. Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams totaled 182 yards and became the first skill player since Leonard Fournette in 2015 to score three touchdowns against the Tigers.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm captured every bit of momentum in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry with a 38-yard touchdown pass to Terry Godwin on fourth-and-2 in the closing seconds of the first half, and running back D’Andre Swift provided the dagger with a 77-yard rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Those were just two of the eight plays of at least 20 yards Auburn surrendered in Athens.

When October began a little more than six weeks ago, the Tigers boasted one of the best defenses in the nation. They allowed 304.6 yards and 12.6 points a game during a 4-1 start against Washington, Alabama State, LSU, Arkansas and Southern Miss. Those totals ranked 16th and third out of 130 FBS teams, respectively.

In the five games since, the Tigers have allowed an average of 440 yards and 24 points. They’re 2-3 in those games, and they still have No. 1 Alabama on the schedule after Saturday’s matchup with Liberty.

“Same 11 guys going out there on the first snap, so, I mean, whatever the situation is or whatever the case is that’s going wrong, we got to just fix it,” Davis said. “Obviously, if we don’t, in two more weeks we’re going to see the same thing.”

No player has or likely will admit it, but it certainly seems as if fatigue could be playing factor.

Auburn’s offense averaged nearly 29 minutes of possession per game through its first five this season. It’s a low total that ranked only 93rd nationally, but with a defense that was playing as well as the Tigers’ was, it was enough — opponents converted only 20 of 79 third downs (25.3 percent), which ranked third nationally.

In the five games since, though, Auburn’s offense is averaging a little more than 23 minutes of possession time, which means its defense has been on the field for nearly two-thirds of those contests. Opponents have converted 35 of 81 third downs in those games, or 43.2 percent. That total would rank outside the top-100 nationally over the course of a full season.

“I think really the simplest way to put it, is probably third down,” head coach Gus Malzahn said about Auburn’s recent defensive struggles. “We’ve had some trouble in those games you’re taking about getting off the field on third down, and that allows more snaps as far as that goes.”

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