Struggling to get the ground game going against Utah State, Auburn ran for less than 100 yards for the first time since 2008 and it took a miraculous finish for the Tigers to pull out the win against the underdog Aggies. Even though there were problems across the board for Coach Gene Chizik's club, one of the most glaring and troublesome was on the offensive line.
The lone returning starter, senior Brandon Mosley moved from right tackle to left tackle for the opener with fellow senior Jared Cooper beside him at guard. Junior John Sullen and freshmen Chad Slade and Reese Dismukes rounded out the starting five for Auburn, a group that Mosley said needs to get better in a hurry if the offense hopes to take off.
"I feel like as an offensive line we didn't play as good as we could have," Mosley said. "We've got a lot of room for improvement especially for this next week against Mississippi State. I feel like we need to start improving this week and play a lot better than we did last week."
It wasn't all bad as the line did some good things at time said Cooper, but not nearly enough to put together the sustained drives needed to be successful.
"We did a lot of good things and there are a lot of things we need to work on," Cooper said. "I know that's kind of the cliché answer, but that's the case. There were certain plays where we actually looked like a football team and certain plays we need to improve a lot on."
One of the things that should help Auburn's line grow is the fact that it was the first start for all but Mosley and Sullen, and the two of them had combined for just 12 total starts. Of those starts 11 came for Mosley, but none at left tackle. All that means it should be a much better game two now that they've had the opportunity to settle in some and work out the kinks in game action.
"With young guys, you should have your greatest opportunity for growth between game one and game two," Grimes said. "And they'll continue to grow as the season goes on, but you have your first real evaluation of what a guy's going to do in the stadium against an opponent on game day. And you find out where you are, he finds out where he is and then you've got at least a starting point to work with. I think they'll all be better because of the experience and I think that those moments of shared experiences, whether it's good or bad or some of both, that'll develop cohesion within the group in time."
Despite putting up some pretty hefty numbers early in the season running the football in 2010 Chizik said after a win against Clemson that his offensive line wasn't physical enough. That proved to be a challenge for the group that played a big part in helping the team to the BCS National Title. It only took one game in 2011 for Chizik and Grimes to both challenge the offensive line, something that Mosley said he's heard not just from the coaches but from all over.
"We took that really personal, and being called out by a lot of people," Mosley said. "A lot of what's said about the offensive line gets to us and we take it real personal. It makes us mad and we want to go out there and do better."
To turn things around Auburn will have to play well against a Mississippi State defense that is physical and flies to the football. Despite losing two key linebackers off last year's team the Bulldogs are still tough. This time it starts up front with big Fletcher Cox. Suspended from the season opener, he's expected back for Saturday's contest and Grimes said he's part of a duo that will be a big challenge for the Tigers.
"They are a very physical team," Grimes said. "Their front plays very well, very aggressive. No. 94 (Fletcher Cox) and No. 97 (Josh Boyd) are probably as good of a pair of defensive tackles as we'll see all year and we played them last year early and I thought they were good then. But I didn't ever go back, you know, we played them early, so I didn't see the rest of the year, and man, those guys really came on.
"They play an upfield, hard-charging style with their defensive tackles and they're going to try to get upfield and disrupt your run game and just … those two guys both have the size and suddenness and the speed, they're the total package. I think they're pretty comparable to the two d-tackles we played at Clemson last year, No. 98 and No. 99. Those two guys gave us issues as well. But it will be a great challenge for us for sure."