“It has been a solid week of practice so far,” he said. “We really challenged our team to raise its level in all areas. I think our guys responded.
“It is getting down to the end of the season,” pointed out Malzahn, whose Tigers are 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC going into Saturday’s home game vs. Texas A&M. “The games are very important and our leadership is really showing up, stepping up, and that is a very good feeling as a coach.”
Malzahn noted that he wants to see improvement in “all three phases” compared to the way the Tigers played in a 35-31 win at Ole Miss last week. “Just everything at every position--it is just that time of year to improve and raise our level, execute and get better,” he said. “That has been our message this week. In practice I felt like our guys have really responded to that.”
Two major issues for the Tigers last week at Ole Miss were the pass coverage and the number of penalties. Auburn was flagged a season-high 13 times for 145 yards while giving up 341 yards through the air to the Rebels.
“The bottom line is we had too many (penalties) and as the head coach I am responsible for that,” Malzahn said. “I have got to figure out a way to correct it and we will correct it.”
Asked about his team’s pass defense, Malzahn said, “We have to do a better job with our zones and passing things off, and everything that goes with that. It all works together on defense, but that is an area we need to improve on. Our coaches understand that, our players understand that and I am confident we will.”
Cameron Artis-Payne, who heads into Saturday’s game as the SEC’s leading rusher, is a player who has won praise from his position coach, Tim Horton, for being a guy who handles all of his assignments well.
“That is something that my father taught me when I was young--that it’s not always about carrying the ball,” Artis-Payne said. “It’s about doing the little things right as far as blocking, being able to catch out of the backfield, all that type of stuff, so that is something I have always worked on and prided myself on.”
One of the ways the senior prepares for games is video study of the upcoming opponent’s defense. “I watch as much film as I can possibly watch just to see my opponent, what weaknesses I can exploit out there, how they play certain formations and things of that nature.”
Artis-Payne gives the offensive line credit for some of the success he is having as a runner. After rushing for 143 yards and a touchdown against Ole Miss, he has 974 yards and seven touchdowns at 5.5 yards per carry.
“They have Coach (J.B.) Grimes, who stays on them about the techniques and details and just taking the right step, that type of stuff,” the running back said of center Reese Dismukes, guard Chad Slade and Devonte Danzey along with tackles Avery Young and Shon Coleman. “They are just getting better and better every day.”
The senior also credits other teammates for the recent surge in Auburn’s running production. The Tigers are leading the SEC in rushing with 277.5 yards per contest.
“The receivers have been blocking great all year, but especially the last couple of games,” he said. “That has been a big key for us. You need all 11 men to do their job at all times to be successful and we have had that these last couple of games--consistently.”
Nick Marshall is a senior quarterback for the Tigers.
Artis-Payne also noted that he has been impressed with how quarterback Nick Marshall is running the offense this year and said that he believes the QB should be considered a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Malzahn agrees about Marshall and said, “He is a winner. He performs at his best when the pressure is highest. Compared to all of these other guys he has probably had a little more big-game experience as far as the number of big games. I don’t know if there is another guy out there who has the resume as far as that goes.”
Malzahn added, “The moment has never been too big for him. He has had numerous moments. From a quarterback standpoint, I don’t know if I have ever had a quarterback who had that many different pressure moments and he has responded like a champ in all of them.”
In other news and notes:
*Freshman running back Roc Thomas, who suffered a mild ankle sprain vs. Ole Miss, has been able to practice this week and will be ready to play vs. Texas A&M, Malzahn said.
*Deep snapper Forrest Hill, who was injured vs. the Rebels, might be able to play, the coach said, but he noted that Ike Powell is expected to handle the punt and field goal snapping this week. “We have a lot of confidence in Ike and he did a super job to finish that (Ole Miss) game.”
Malzahn noted that Powell, an invited walk-on, has gotten plenty of work with the second team going back to preseason. “He has practiced extremely well. We have been challenging our players that you never know when you will be called on and he is a great example of that. When the pressure was the highest he went in there and performed like a champ and really helped our team. ...He definitely answered the bell.”
Derrick Moncrief transferred to Auburn in January from junior college.
*The coach said there is no change in the status of senior safety Jermaine Whitehead, a former starter who is only being allowed to play on special teams due to a discipline issue. He repeated that the reason Whitehead is not playing on defense is between the head coach and the player.
*Asked if defensive end Carl Lawson still has a chance of playing this season, Malzahn said, “Until he is 100 percent healthy my number one concern is his long-term health. He is a great player and has a great future. That is really all there is to it right now.” Lawson, a sophomore who has a redshirt season available, has been out of action since having knee surgery following spring training.
*Kickoff time for Saturday’s home game is 2:30 p.m. The contest will be televised by CBS with Carter Blackburn doing play-by-play with Aaron Taylor as the analyst.
*The Auburn Network radio broadcast can be heard on channel 84 on both Sirius and XM with Rod Bramblett, Stan White and Quentin Riggins calling the action. Paul Ellen is the studio host and Andy Burcham does the locker room report. The contest will also be carried on ESPN Radio.
*The Aggies, who are 6-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC, are making just their second appearance at Jordan-Hare Stadium where they won 63-21 in 2013. Coach Kevin Sumlin has a 1-1 record vs the Tigers. His team has lost its last three SEC games by scores of 48-31 to Mississippi State, 35-20 to Ole Miss and 59-0 to Alabama.
*The Aggie defender who is having perhaps the most impressive season is cat-quick end Myles Garrett, who has 11 quarterback sacks to break the SEC record for freshmen previously held by Jadaveon Clowney.
*Another freshman having a strong season for the Aggies is wide receiver Speedy Noil, who will arrive in Auburn on a streak of four consecutive games in which he has gained at least 100 all-purpose yards. The five-star recruit is one of six receivers who have double figures totals for receptions. Nine different receivers have scored touchdowns this season.
*The Aggies have played 14 true freshmen this year and started six of them, including quarterback Kyle Allen, who will be making his first SEC start as well as his first road start on Saturday.
*The Aggies average 312 pounds per man on their offensive front, the largest OL group of starters in Texas A&M history. The group calls itself the “Maroon Goons.”
*The linemen have helped the Aggies have success in the red zone, scoring on 32 of 37 trips inside the opposition’s 20-yard line and producing 28 touchdowns.
Auburn is ranked second in the country in red zone defense, allowing 21 conversions in 33 trips with 17 touchdowns.
*Saturday’s game is Auburn’s final SEC home contest of the season. Malzahn’s record at Jordan-Hare Stadium as Auburn’s head coach is 13-0. The Tigers have a 14-game home winning streak dating back to 2012, which is the longest for any FBS team. The Tigers will close the home schedule on Nov. 22nd with a visit from the Samford Bulldogs.