Auburn, Ala.--Auburn’s defensive line has shown improvement in the first two games of the 2014 season, but the biggest challenges are still to come for the group and that starts on Thursday when the Tigers head to Kansas State to face Bill Snyder’s Wildcats.
So far Auburn’s front four has been up to the task, a big part of the reason why the Tigers have allowed just 67 yards on the ground in the last six quarters on 53 attempts (an average of 1.26 yards per carry). That has included getting more pressure on the quarterback as well, but there has been a downside to that pressure as well.
In last week’s win over San Jose State, quarterback Blake Jurich proved to be a thorn in Auburn’s side and it wasn’t just with his arm. While his overall rushing totals weren’t impressive because of the lost yardage due to sacks (13 carries for 20 yards), he was able to make significant plays on the ground on quarterback draws or scrambles. Four of his runs went for 45 yards and first downs for the Spartans, something defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said is a concern for him.
“We’re giving up some first downs on scrambles and scramble routes,” Johnson said. “We’re getting to the quarterback and sometimes, I don’t know if overrated is the best word, but I would almost rather knock the quarterback down seven times in the first half than sack him two or three times. I think you get a lot better results when the quarterback gets hit. When you sack him there is no chance for an interception.
"Sacks are obviously a big deal and they are important, but hitting the quarterback is just as important," he said. "There was a lot of that the other night, whereas the first game I didn’t think we did very well.”
Even though Jurich is a solid runner, he is nothing like the guy Auburn will face in game three, Kansas State’s Jake Waters. The leading rusher for the Wildcats this season, Waters is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in the comeback win over Iowa State.
Accounting for 377 total yards, including a career high 138 on the ground, Waters is a different threat than the Tigers have seen this season.
“It will be critical, very critical,” Johnson said of stopping the quarterback runs. “Every quarterback we have played has been pretty mobile, but not like this guy. Coach Snyder is going to run him intentionally about 30 times a game if he has to. That will be a big deal, and just being able to fit the run against him period.
“He likes big, physical running quarterbacks who are going to have the ability to run over you or speed--whatever their knack is," Johnson added. "He designs his offense to run the quarterback. So you can bet on passing situations, keeping him bottled up is going to be a challenge.”