Tigers defense gears up for Mississippi State


Auburn last lost its season opener in 2005, falling at home to Reggie Ball and the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech 23-14, snapping a 15-game winning streak. The Tigers stayed home the next week and bounced back against Mississippi State 28-0.

Auburn looks to do the same today, albeit with slightly different circumstances this time around.

In 2005, Auburn won the Sugar Bowl in January to finish the '04 season at 13-0. Four of its players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft in April. Three of those players were top nine picks.

This year, the Tigers aren't immediately following up an undefeated group of legends, though they are just one year removed from getting national championship rings.

Auburn returns a roster full of key contributors from last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl squad. Even in positions where they lost major experience, the Tigers are loaded in young talent eager to prove they belong in the top slots of an SEC depth chart and keep Auburn from its second 0-2 start in more than two decades.

Last Saturday, Auburn's inexperience was on display for a national audience as young talent proved both impressive and frustrating.

There were the great plays like sophomore running back Tre Mason's 30-yard two-step, senior back Onterio McCalebb's 20-yard scamper and the longest-scoring play of the night, when senior receiver Emory Blake hauled in a bomb from sophomore quarter back Kiehl Frazier for 54 yards and 6 points.

Frustration won out though as the Tigers from the Carolinas ran for 320 yards - 228 on Andre Ellington's 25 carries. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins was everywhere all night with his 13 catches and 119 yards, and Clemson pulled away on the scoreboard late for a 26-19 win. Missed tackles, open lanes and a very shifty Tahj Boyd all were factors in the younger Tigers' loss.

Today, Auburn's youth will look to wake up early and continue a string of success against the Bulldogs of Starkville that dates back (with one exception - 2007) to 2000.

Mississippi State comes into conference play looking to keep the points flowing after a 56-9 win over Jackson State. The offense ran for over 200 yards and the defense grabbed three picks, and the game was never really in doubt.

Running backs Derrick Milton and LaDarious Perkins combined for 17 carries, 123 yards and three touchdowns. Two State defenders, Darius Slay and Matthew Wells, ran interceptions back for scores. New starting quarterback Tyler Russell threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns on 15-24 passing.

The Bulldogs are thirsty for a win over Auburn after several close calls in a row against the Tigers. After Auburn's 2007 home loss to State, the Tigers have won four in a row, the three closest by scores of 3-2, 17-14 and 41-34. MSU coach Dan Mullen is in his fourth year at the helm in Starkville, but has yet to beat an SEC West opponent that doesn't reside in Oxford, going 3-12 so far against his division.

Last year's 7-point Auburn win was punctuated at the goal line by a heroic defensive stand as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Auburn ran for over 200 yards that day, while Mississippi State had 200-yard rushers of their own in quarter back Chris Relf and back Vick Ballard.

These maroon and white backfield looks a bit different, however. Though we probably didn't see much of what State's got to offer in a very vanilla win last week, we do know Russell is smaller and more apt to stay in the pocket and throw than Relf.

Coach Chizik acknowledged the defense needs to improve at every position this week in order to contain MSU, specifically noting tackling.

The defensive line of Auburn was a treat to watch at times in the Georgia Dome, getting in Boyd's face and forcing him to scramble uncomfortably several times. More often than not, though, he looked more than comfortable outside the protection of his tackles.

Ends Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier were the standouts on the line, combining for 13 tackles and four sacks, and Darren Bates showed prowess on blitzes at times too. The middle two of the Auburn line, usually junior Jeff Whitaker and sophomore Gabe Wright, didn't quite make enough of an impact last week. Rookie defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will likely keep the pressure up on the young Russell and try to make him prove he can either throw from the pocket staring down edge rushers or move outside, a la Boyd and Relf.

If he can stand in the pocket and is given time to find open receivers, his three seniors-Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith--could make the Auburn secondary a busy bunch. Jameon Lewis and Marcus Green are also reliable targets for Russell. The back seven of Auburn, led by the likes of juniors Jake Holland and Demetruce McNeal and seniors Darren Bates and T'Sharvan Bell, was perhaps unfairly left hanging after good coverage a few times last week.

State's defensive line didn't appear to be a weakness last week, but there are two new starters for the young Auburn O-line to match up with. The Auburn running tandem of McCalebb and Mason combined for 188 yards on 26 carries against Clemson and will look to hit the 200-yard mark Auburn ran for last year against the Bulldogs. Fullback Jay Prosch will be a huge help in making that goal a reality for the Tigers, if last Saturday was any indication.

The defensive backfield is marshaled by potential All-American and NFL prospect Johnthan Banks. Banks could be a blanket at times back there, so new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler will likely lean run heavy from his pro-style I-formation and leave Frazier to methodically chip his way down field with short passes. Frazier went 11 of 27-40.7 percent-for 194 yards and a touchdown and a pick against Clemson. That line and his other route runners like Quan Bray, Travante Stallworth and Trovon Reed must improve for Auburn to be comfortable with allowing Frazier to try to be a big time passer.

On special teams, Auburn looked fairly solid last week with junior kicker Cody Parkey nailing four field goals in the Dome and punter Steven Clark punting impressively. Punt returner Bray looked a bit timid last week but has the potential to be explosive. McCalebb and Mason are also perennial homerun threats. State has Banks and Perkins returning kicks. Banks has a touchdown on his resume

and Perkins averages over 20 yards a return. Kicker Devon Bell has not yet kicked a field goal in college and punter Baker Swedenburg has a reliable SEC leg.

Bulldogs coach Mullen hasn't been able to beat Auburn. Some stats and trends seem to favor Auburn. A few favor State. When the ball is kicked off (early) Saturday, those things probably won't matter. Auburn's defensive line pressure on a young, relatively immobile quarterback will matter. Mississippi State hopes the running of Derrick Milton and LaDarius Perkins will be a key factor. Kiehl Frazier's ability to move the ball both before and after the 20 will likely help determine Auburn's fate. Special teams could very well be the difference. It could even be nearly as tight as 3-2.

The numbers:

- Auburn leads the all-time series 60-23-2 and leads in Starkville 27-6.

- This is the second time since 1984 Auburn has started the season with two games away from home

- 15 players debuted collegiately for Auburn last Saturday.

- Auburn has won 74 consecutive games when scoring over 30 points.

- Gene Chizik coached Auburn teams have gone 7-3 following losses.

- Though many Auburn fans think the early kickoff games have been bad for the team, the Tigers are actually 5-1 under Chizik in pre-noon kickoff games.

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