Tigers Preparing For Physical SEC Opener

The Auburn football team put on full pads for a second straight day as it prepares for league play.

Auburn, Ala.--Gus Malzahn put his Tigers through a full pads workout on Wednesday evening as his Auburn football team prepares for Saturday's SEC opening game vs. visiting Mississippi State.

The head coach called the session that lasted more than two hours a "solid" one and said the intensity was better than earlier in the week.

Malzahn noted that his Tigers are expecting a hard-hitting opponent when the Bulldogs visit Jordan-Hare Stadium, which has traditionally been the case when these two teams meet. He noted that his team's practice has been set up to prepare his players for that kind of test.

"You are exactly right, they have been physical," he said of previous Auburn-Mississippi State matchups. As an offensive coordinator for the Tigers, he was involved in three of those games, which included a close call for the unbeaten 2010 Tigers.

Another focus in practice has been improving on third down plays. "It is very critical each week as the games get more important," Malzahn said. "Third down, you can look at that and usually it will have a big factor in the game whether you win or lose. We need to get better on both sides of the ball on third down."

The Tigers are converting 39.3 percent of their third downs into first downs on offense while opponents have converted at a 42.9 percent rate vs. the Auburn defense.

The second and third quarters have been problem periods on third down for the Auburn offense. Combined the Tigers have converted just 2-10 tries. Auburn's worst defensive period for third downs is the opening quarter with opponents making 7-10 tries.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said on Wednesday that the fact the Tigers and Bulldogs regularly open SEC play against other "adds a little of a rivalry aspect to the game."

Mullen, who is 1-3 vs. the Tigers as head coach at MSU, saw his Bulldogs defeat Auburn 28-10 last season, which he said was one of his top wins as a head coach. That was just the second victory for the Bulldogs over the Tigers since Mississippi State put together a run of four consecutive wins in the series from 1997-2000.

Dan Mullen is in his fifth season as head coach of the Bulldogs.

"I think the first game is so critical in how you start your year off in conference play," Mullen said. "I know our guys are ready...We have had a good week of practice so far."

Auburn's Malzahn agreed with Mullen about the importance of the SEC opener. "I think it can give great momentum," he said. "With a victory I think that will definitely help us out."

The Auburn coach said the experienced Tigers are trying to step up in practice this week. "The older players are really understanding--they are trying to make sure the younger players understand this is a different deal," he said. "We play in the best conference in college football. We will definitely have to raise our level."

The Tigers have had plenty of success vs. the Bulldogs over the years. Auburn leads the series 60-24-2 and is 27-6 in games vs. the Bulldogs played in Auburn.

Looking at this year's Auburn team, Mullen said, "Obviously, they are very different schematically. They have got some new faces out there on the field playing a lot as well. You look at them and they are a young football team. They don't have a lot of seniors playing."

Stopping Auburn's running attack, which is averaging 298 yards per game, could be a challenge for Mississippi State on Saturday night. Mullen called Tre Mason, Auburn's leading rusher last season, a "very, very explosive player."

The Mississippi State coach added, "When he gets in the open field he is extremely dangerous. He is dangerous in the return game as well because of his exceptional speed when he gets to the open field. He also runs very physically between the tackles and that is what is impressive."

Mason is averaging 86.0 yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry through two games this year, second to Corey Grant, who is averaging 93.0 yards per game at 11.6 yards per carry. Juco transfer Cameron Artis-Payne is adding 77.0 yards per game at 5.3 yards per carry.

Tre Mason is shown in action this season.

Mason said the offensive line, which returns four starters from last year, is off to a good start. "They are growing up," the junior stated. "They are pretty much all veterans up front. They are doing what it takes to get the job done."

The only new starter up front is left guard Alex Kozan, a redshirt freshman who took over for 2012 senior John Sullen. "Everything starts with them up front," Mason said. "They are the heartbeat of this team. We are looking forward to them continuing to progress and get better throughout the season."

Mason said that sharing the carries between three running backs and quarterback Nick Marshall, who is rushing for 40 yards per game, has not been a problem. He pointed out that having other guys perform well encourages the others to do the same thing.

"It's motivation," he said, adding, "One guy will have a big run and come to the sideline and say ‘now it's your turn.' We have to keep pushing each other. That is what it takes. Teamwork is what it takes to make it far in this league."

A pair of 10-game streaks will be on the line on Saturday night. Malzahn has won 10 straight games as a head coach while Auburn has lost 10 consecutive conference games dating back to the 2011 Georgia contest.

"We are still building this thing at Auburn," Malzahn said. "We are a work in progress, but I really like the direction we are going."

In other news and notes:

*Saturday's game will kick off at 6 p.m. CDT with television coverage on ESPN2. Auburn Network radio coverage is available on Sirius 136 and XM 201.

*Auburn's coaching staff is very familiar with Mississippi State. In addition to cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith, who was on Mullen's staff last season in Starkville, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, safeties coach Charlie Harbison and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes have all coached at MSU. The foursome has combined for 25 seasons of coaching in Starkville.

*Malzahn said the Tigers are continuing to expand quarterback Nick Marshall's playbook as the team prepares for the SEC opener. "We are trying to add to it each week with what Nick feels comfortable with to build this thing around his strengths," the head coach said.

*Through two games the Auburn offense has been averaging 6.5 yards per play. The Tigers are averaging 7.1 yards on first down, 5.3 on second down and 6.5 yards on third down.

*With the Tigers looking to find a receiver they can count on to throw the ball to on big plays, Malzahn was asked if sophomore Sammie Coates might become that guy after catching a touchdown pass last week. However, the head coach noted that Coates needs to become more consistent. "I would say that goes for all of our receivers," he added.

*Defensive end Dee Ford and "star" rover Justin Garrett, a pair of projected starters, have yet to take a snap this season due to injuries. Malzahn said both players "mixed and matched" at Wednesday's workout, spending time with the first team defense and with the backups.

*Malzahn said that the new special teams coach, Scott Fountain, has been doing "a great job" so far. "He had a very good grip on the special teams being here before," Malzahn said, noting that Fountain has used part of what the Tigers did in the past four years under Gene Chizik plus special teams coach Jay Boulware and added new wrinkles. "He is an attention to detail guy," Malzahn said of Fountain. "I tried to hire him at Arkansas State last year as my special teams coordinator."

Malzahn added, "Special teams is a third of the game. I strongly believe you put your best players on the field."

The Tigers will return to the practice field on Thursday evening for what is expected to be a lighter workout in shorts.

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