Auburn, Ala.--Gus Malzahn said that the Auburn defense, and the entire football team, is focused in on a challenging assignment when the Tigers travel to Mississippi State to face the No. 3 ranked Bulldogs.
Malzahn put the Tigers through a two-hour practice on Wednesday evening in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts as they rehearsed the game plan for Saturday’s SEC West showdown.
“I thought our guys were locked in,” the coach said. “I thought they were excited to practice and they had very good intensity.”
Asked about his team’s defense as the Tigers prepare to face an opponent averaging 42.6 points per game, Malzahn said, “It is a big challenge, no doubt, and our defense is definitely excited to go up against these guys and try to stop them.
In Starkville the Tigers will be trying to slow an offense that is averaging 541.8 yards per game, which ranks third in the SEC this week. Auburn’s defense, which finished 12th in the league last season in yards allowed, goes into Saturday’s game third in the SEC in total defense giving up just 306.6 yards per contest.
Senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said that being in the same system for a second year is one of the reasons for the improvement and so is building a good relationship with Ellis Johnson and the rest of the defensive staff. “The guys have bought in extremely well,” Wright said. “Trust is a big factor between the coaches and players. I feel like the cohesion is really good and settling in, and that is kind of obvious.
“With a first-year defense you have got to build those relationships,” Wright added. “And, as you can, as the season went on last year, we drastically progressed. Go through another spring and fall, and it really helped us make strides.”
Wright pointed out that his Tigers are still a work in progress on defense. “Even seeing some of these games that are described as dominant, there are still so many mistakes that could be cleaned up,” he said.
The senior is predicting a tight game on Saturday as the Tigers take on an opponent that gave the 2013 SEC champions one of their toughest games with Auburn pulling out a 24-20 victory with a last-minute drive for a touchdown.
“Since I have been here Mississippi State has always gone down to the wire,” said Wright, who added, “We know we are always going to get the best from Mississippi State. It is always a tough game so that is what I have known since I have been here.”
Sophomore offensive tackle Shon Coleman said he is looking forward to his second collegiate road start, especially doing it against a team that features many players he competed against as a high school All-American at Olive Branch, Miss., High School.
“I am really getting settled into it and gaining the experience,” said Coleman, who was a backup to Greg Robinson last season.
One of Coleman’s assignments on Saturday will be to block defensive end Preston Smith, who has been named SEC Defensive Player of the Week in three of the Bulldogs’ five games this season. “He is a great player and I am looking forward to it,” the left tackle said.
“Their whole front four and linebackers--their whole defense--they have got a lot of guys from last year coming back that are great players,” he said.
Coleman contends that having road experience in a noisy stadium at Kansas State will help the offense for what is expected to be a loud stadium in Starkville on Saturday.
“That was a great environment,” he said of Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kan. “That was really our first road game where we had to go in against a ranked team--a great atmosphere, great fans there. We had to go in and that really helped me out a lot getting through that game and knowing how it feels going through a road game and get a win out of two ranked teams (playing each other).”
Malzahn said he thought Auburn’s offensive communication was solid at Kansas State despite the noise and Coleman agrees. “Going into a place like that, a hostile environment like that, communication is always going to be a key,” the sophomore tackle pointed out. “We work through practice throughout the week to make sure everything is good and we can go in there and make sure everything is clicking as far as communication.”
Mississippi State is actively promoting quarterback Dak Prescott as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Asked if the Tigers have any plans to do that with Nick Marshall, Malzahn said, “We'll let everything play out. It is awful early for everything. My experience is at the end of the year the teams that are winning their best players are in the mix. I think everybody saw that last year with Tre (Mason).
“We feel like Nick is one of the better quarterbacks in the country,” Malzahn added. “He has been consistent with finding ways to win. I'm sure there are very few guys who can say the same.”>
In other news and notes:
*Malzahn said that Patrick Miller, who missed the LSU game with a sprained ankle, practiced on Wednesday. Avery Young moved from guard to tackle to take Miller’s spot at right tackle and Devonte Danzey made his first college start lining up at guard.
“We felt good about last week,” Malzahn said. “We feel good about Pat, if he is healthy, so that gives us much needed depth.” The coach didn’t say if Miller will play vs. the Bulldogs.
*In Auburn’s previous road trip the Tigers held a strong running quarterback, Jake Waters, to negative yardage. Asked if he thinks the trend will continue vs. MSU’s Dak Prescott, Malzahn said, “You hope so. They are a different team than Kansas State and that was just that specific plan for that week that worked out.
“He (Prescott) is an outstanding quarterback. He throws it extremely well and he is like a running back when he runs it.”
*Asked about his team’s offensive issues catching passes at Kansas State, Malzahn said, “Any time you have an area you feel like you need to get better in, that is what you focus on. That has been our focus, catching the football, looking the football in and everything that goes with it--not just the receivers from that night. We have improved in a lot of areas and we needed to do.”
*Asked if he believes that senior Cameron Artis-Payne, who is third in the SEC in rushing, is underrated, Malzahn said, “He is that type of guy that he probably likes that. He is not a big attention-getter guy. He is a go-to-work type of guy and do his job.
Cameron Artis-Payne is a senior, who transferred to Auburn last year after two outstanding seasons in the California junior college ranks.
“He practices extremely hard, he is extremely hard on himself about the little things,” the coach added. “He is always trying to get better and he is a tough guy. He has got experience in our offense, not just this year but last year. This year is different, he's trying to establish himself as the guy right now and he is doing a solid job.”
*Asked about Mississippi State’s pass defense, which gave 365 passing yards to Texas A&M last week despite 11 drops by the Aggies, Malzahn said, “You look at the film and there were some of those that were defended extremely well. They caused drops. They weren’t just all wide-open drops. Their defense is good, and they challenge you. They make you earn stuff so I think they have a good defense.”
*Asked if the Auburn coaches have talked to the defensive players about MSU center Dillon Day, who was suspended for last week’s game after stomping on LSU players, Malzahn said, “No. We are going to play football and we are going to worry about ourselves.”
*Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen noted that his team is looking forward to the opportunity to take on No. 2 Auburn. “I think our guys are really fired up and excited about the game this weekend,” Mullen said on Wednesday, pointing out it is unprecedented in MSU history to have a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup game for the Bulldogs. “That is pretty exciting for us,” he said. MSU’s highest national ranking prior to this week was No. 7 in 1981.
Mullen said while the attention his program is getting is “kind of cool and kind of neat,” the reality is the Bulldogs are just 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference and are a long way from achieving their team goal of winning the division. “I think we want to win a lot more than that (two games) in the SEC,” he added.
*Mississippi State has an experienced team. The Bulldogs’ projected starting lineup for Saturday has seven seniors running first team on offense plus six more on defense. Six other seniors are listed as second team players.
*The Bulldogs are coming off of back-to-back wins vs. Top 10 opponents (LSU and Texas A&M), a first in school history as they take on No. 2 ranked Auburn.
*Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. with TV coverage on CBS with Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson calling the action at soldout Davis-Wade Stadium, which has been expanded to 61,337 seats this year.
The Auburn Network radio broadcast with Rod Bramblett, Stan White, Quentin Riggins, Paul Ellen and Andy Burcham is available on Sirius Channel 138 and XM Channel 192.
*Auburn leads the series 61-24-2 and has a record of 12-5-1 in games played at Starkville. Since the Bulldogs won four years in a row vs. the Tigers from 1997-2000, Auburn has taken 11 of the 13 matchups.
*Auburn is one of five the 128 FBS teams that have scored on every trip into the red zone this season. When reaching the opposition’s 20-yard line the Tigers have produced 17 touchdowns and four field goals.
*The Tigers are ranked third nationally in converting third downs at 56.9 percent. The offense’s most productive quarter on third downs is the fourth with a conversion rate of 70.6 percent.Mississippi State is ranked eighth in the SEC in third down conversions at 41.4 percent and second in third down defense allowing opponents to convert just 26.8 percent of their opportunities. Auburn is tied with Ole Miss for fifth place in third down defense allowing a 28.7 percent conversion rate.
*Auburn has outscored opponents 210-72, the largest margin through five games since the 2005 team had an advantage of 143 points, five more than the current squad.