Atlanta, Ga.—Practicing in shorts and shoulder pads for nearly two hours inside the Georgia Dome on Wednesday, the Auburn Tigers continued to work towards a date with Virginia in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.
Putting in a good work day was important for the Tigers being that it was Coach Gene Chizik's 50th birthday and Coach Trooper Taylor said the team responded well.
"It was great," Taylor said. "The guys were upbeat. Today was Coach Chizik's birthday and they flew around and kept cutting up about that. It looks like they are having fun and that to me is critical. It's supposed to be a reward.
"They are putting the work in and we're really getting a lot of great work from the young players," Taylor said. "Watching those guys grow up and develop has been huge. Seeing some of the seniors cut up and have a good time has been huge, too."
It will be the last game for the Tigers under the guidance of coordinator Gus Malzahn as an offensive group. While a lot of the focus recently has been on Auburn's defense under Chizik, Taylor said Malzahn won't go out without putting everything he's got into his plan for the Cavaliers.
"If you know Gus he's going to be competitive regardless," Taylor said. "The thing about him and what makes him a good person and a good coach is that he doesn't change. He's the same way. Every day he comes through that day he's got the same mentality and that is to be the best. He tries to make the guys around him the same way.
"He could go sell cars and be successful because he's just that type of guy. He's going to pay attention to the details. I hope he wins enough games that he's not selling cars in a couple of years. I know he's going be a successful coach because he's such as great person and has a great family, too."
One of the biggest keys for Auburn's success on offense will be the play of junior wide receiver Emory Blake. Despite being injured for the second half of the season with a high ankle sprain he still tied for the team lead with 30 catches and led the team with 505 receiving yards. Taylor said they're working hard to make sure he's ready to go on game day and that means keeping his reps down so his ankle stays good.
"I've held him out of a few drills, and if you know Emory, he hates that because he thinks people think he's not working," Taylor said. "But I have to have him fresh. He's been doing really well."
Chizik back to form?
A lot has been made of the talk coming from Auburn's defensive players during bowl practices about Chizik and his style of coaching on the field. Nobody on the team or staff is as familiar with Gene Chizik the coordinator as cornerback coach Phillip Lolley. Watching Chizik get back into the groove as the DC has been a fun experience for Lolley and he said for the entire team.
"I always know what to expect from Coach," Lolley said. "He's a great leader, a great teacher. You can tell that we started from ground level with our teaching methods. That's what we wanted to accomplish going into this bowl game, get the ground work again knowing that we've got a lot of young players.
"We've done a lot of teaching, a lot of drills, a lot of fundamental," Lolley said. "He's been highly, highly excited. Not being able to coach a position for four or five years, having to serve as the head guys, he's been highly motivated. It rubs off on everybody; it's contagious."
Virginia offense a challenge to Auburn D-Line
Facing a Virginia offense that has shown balance this season it will be up to Auburn's young defensive line to shoulder the burden of slowing them down. Coach Mike Pelton said he's seen a lot of growing up from his group during bowl practices and they're going to need to play well to win on Saturday.
"They're very big up front and they're physical up front," Pelton said. "It's going to be a challenge to stop their run game. The tight ends are very big, very tall, very athletic. It's going to be a challenge. They're downhill runners, and they're not ashamed to hand it off to him and just go up and down the field with them.
"It all starts up front," Pelton added. "We're going to have to do a great job against their offensive line to give us a chance to win, but you know, that's every week for us."
Mason ready to run...
Auburn's running game will look different without Michael Dyer in the backfield, but as far as Tre Mason is concerned it's still the same basic principles and that is to run hard and do your job. Being counted on to carry a heavier load against Virginia he said he's excited about his chance to shine.
"I still think we'll do our basic stuff, which is run between the tackles and everything," Mason said. "They did bring us in here to be running backs, and I know neither of us are afraid to run between the tackles. We're ready to do this."