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A spirit that is not afraid

Tiger defense looking to reignite pass rush, rebound against Missouri

In the days following Auburn’s disappointing showing in what was billed as a revenge matchup against the Nittany Lions of Penn State, there was plenty of talk about “flushing” the bitter taste of defeat.

With conference play fasting approaching, however, the Tigers have had little time to wash out their mouths before welcoming their feline counterparts from the SEC East in the Missouri Tigers.

Against Penn State, very little went well for the Tigers’ defense. The Nittany Lions’ dynamic freshman running back duo gashed Auburn on the ground to the tune of 176 yards and four touchdowns, and Sean Clifford completed nearly 88% of his passes.

Such a high completion rate can be attributed to Auburn’s lack of pass rush. In the contest against Penn State, the Tigers failed to record a single sack and generated little pressure otherwise.

Through three games, Auburn has recorded four sacks, a far cry from the 60-sack season goal set by defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and the rest of the unit. Seeing that Missouri averages just over 30 pass attempts per game, the pass rush will figure to play a key role this week.

According to junior defensive lineman Marcus Harris, the Tigers expect to have that aspect of their game ironed out sooner rather than later.

“As a defense, we have a goal for however many sacks we want on the year, and we're not accomplishing it right now,” said Harris. “But I feel like we got the guys that are gonna get to it and keep working, like we're not gonna give up on that. We still got a high standard for sacks and we're gonna get it by the end of the year.”

When addressing the media on Wednesday, Harris and junior safety Zion Puckett had no shortage of things the Tigers could have done better against Penn State. Misfitting gaps in the run game. Not playing sound technique. Getting past the “jitterbugs” that come with inexperience.

Yet for Puckett, there was one simple aspect that makes a world of difference.

“I think the biggest thing we need to get better at is communicating. That's one thing I will say. Other than that I feel like it was little things here and now but we did pretty good,” Puckett said. “I know it didn't turn out the way we [wanted it to] but we can move on from there and we're gonna play Missouri.”

With Missouri true freshman phenom Luther Burden coming to town, communication on the defensive side of the ball will be of the utmost importance. A consensus five-star wide receiver recruit out of East St. Louis, Ill., Burden is utilized in a variety of ways, including being split out wide as well as in the wildcat formation.

Such a dynamic receiver has the potential to give Auburn and its 81st-ranked passing defense fits. So far this season, the Tigers are allowing just over 234 passing yards per game and have yet to force an interception. In fact, Auburn is one of only four FBS teams yet to force a turnover of either kind thus far.

After getting the opportunity to study Burden’s collegiate tape and everything he brings to Saturday’s homecoming showdown between both sets of Tigers, Puckett came away impressed.

“We're seeing a lot of things. I know he's pretty young, but he’s got a little savvy to his game, getting out of his cuts,” Puckett said. “Very good at catching the ball, so I feel like he’s got a lot of ability and a standard that will come on from year to year, so he'll be good.”

With the potential for Burden to be anywhere on the field at any given moment, Auburn will need to quickly identify the formation. According to Puckett, that will require eye discipline and applying the defensive coaches’ rules.

When Auburn (2-1, 0-0) takes on Missouri (2-1, 0-0) at home at 11 a.m. Saturday, they’ll do so as a seven-point favorite. The game will be televised on ESPN. 

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