Iron Bowl Preparations 'Solid,' Malzahn Says

News, notes and quotes from the Auburn Tigers are featured as they prepare to play Alabama.

Duke Williams (above) is expected to return to action this week for the Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers took advantage of no classes to spend extra time with installation of the game plan for Saturday’s Iron Bowl football game.

Working out in helmets and shorts on Wednesday the Tigers finished the practice under the lights and the head coach, Gus Malzahn, noted that his team has made progress this week.

“We have had solid meetings, solid practices this week,” he said. “It has been really good to have the extra time for a game like this. I think our guys have handled their time wisely.”

Asked if he believes the Tigers are where they need to be in their preparations to get ready for a road game vs. No. 1 ranked Alabama, Malzahn said, “I think so. We just got off the practice field and I told the guys I really like where we are at. Their energy, their attention to detail, has been very good this week.”

The Tigers, 8-3 overall and 4-3 in the SEC, will have a light workout on Thanksgiving Day before getting together for a team meal and then letting players have the afternoon off to spend with their families and/or friends before getting back together on Thursday night to put the finishing touches on plans for Saturday night’s game in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama, 10-1 overall and 6-1 in the SEC, is the team coming into the game with momentum. Auburn has lost two of its previous three games with SEC setbacks vs. Texas A&M?and Georgia to go with a win last week vs. Samford.

Asked to assess his team’s confidence level, Malzahn said, “I think we are very confident. Like I said earlier in the week I like where we are at. We started off good, we had a tough stretch there, but this is the Iron Bowl and I know our guys are excited to play in it.”

Wide receivers Duke Williams and Ricardo Louis, who missed last week’s game with injuries, are expected to play vs. the Tide. Williams, Auburn’s leading receiver, was injured early in the Texas A&M game and did not see action vs. Georgia or Samford the past two weeks.

“He has looked well,” Malzahn said of how Williams has performed in practice this week. “He is a big weapon in our offense. I am not going to say he is going to be 100 percent, but even not 100 percent he is a big weapon and he gives us some options.”

Another key receiver, Sammie Coates, was hurt early and the season and has been working to regain all of his speed and quickness. “I think he is getting more healthier each week,” Malzahn said.

“The biggest thing is he has battled through the (knee) injury,” Malzahn said. “It has been really challenging. He has shown some toughness. He probably played some weeks when others probably wouldn’t.”

Auburn’s coach said the Tigers have used their extra practice time to work on special teams play. “At times we have been very good on special teams and at times we have not,” Mazahn pointed out. “Last year it (the victory over Alabama) really came down to quite a few special teams plays. I feel like this one will be no different so we are going to have to play well on special teams.”

Ellis Johnson noted the Tigers are preparing to see a different looking Alabama offense than the one Auburn played against last season. “It’s a lot of different,” the defensive coordinator said. “There are a lot of similarities in their formations from last year, but their whole system is very different.”

“It has got a lot of pace in it, a real fast operation, a lot of zone read,” Johnson pointed out. “The quarterback doesn’t carry it a whole lot, but when he does, he is a threat to go the whole way. He is big and fast. He can get the ball outside, whereas that was a play you didn't really worry about (last year). You packed the box and made sure you stopped the running back. He is a dual threat. They have the plays to use him that way if they need to do it.”

Johnson said the bottom line for the defense is that his group needs to step up its performance level on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. “We have got to play a lot better than we have been playing,” the veteran coach noted. “I think they are probably playing as good of football as they have played during the season and I’m not sure we are. We have got to step it up.”

Auburn’s offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, said that the Auburn-Alabama rivalry goes on “365 days a year” and adds, “There is a lot of pride involved on both sides. It means a lot and it trickles down into everything. It’s a big game. You could sit up here and act like it’s the same as every other game, but it’s not. It’s the Iron Bowl. It’s a big game, it’s at the end of the year and we want to finish the season well.”

Lashlee said keys for the Tigers on Saturday night will be to avoid beating themselves with turnovers, penalties and other mistakes.

Rhett Lashlee is in his second season as Auburn's offensive coordinator.

Wide receiver Quan Bray agrees with the coach and says in the three games the Tigers lost bad starts were a major issue. “We had a couple penalties that set us back,” the senior points out. “Once we get penalties and get behind the sticks, then our offense doesn’t move too good when we do those types of things. We just have to get off to a good start. Once we get off to a good start, then our offense gets to clicking.”

Alabama will be the 10th bowl eligible team the Tigers have faced this year and may have the best defense Auburn’s offense has had to deal with in 2014. Bray contends the Tigers are ready for the challenge. “Ole Miss had the No. 1 defense, too, and we went there and took care of business,” he points out. “That just gives us a little motivation to step our level of play up a little bit more.”

In other news and notes:

*The game will be televised on ESPN with a 6:45 p.m. start. Brent Musberger will do the play-by-play with Jesse Palmer the analyst. Alabama is the host site of this week’s ESPN’s College GameDay show.

*Radio coverage on the Auburn Network can be found on Sirius and XM Channel 91 with Rod Bramblett, Stan White, Quentin Riggins, Paul Ellen and Andy Burcham providing coverage. The national radio broadcast will be on the Compass Network.

*This year’s game is just the sixth Iron Bowl matchup to start at night. The Tigers are 3-3 in those contests. The last one, in 2007, was won 17-10 by Auburn.

*Going back to 1967 the team that finished with the most rushing yards has won 40 times and lost seven in Iron Bowl matchups. The last time a team won in this series despite being out-rushed was Auburn in the 1997 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

*Alabama has a 42-35-1 lead in the series. The Tigers have won six of the last 10 matchups and hold a 7-2 edge in games played in Tuscaloosa.

*With starting defensive end Davonte Lambert having knee surgery this week the Tigers have been getting tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams ready to help at end, something they did early in the season.

True freshman Raashed Kennion, who has seen very limited playing time after suffering an ankle injury early in the season, could see action at end, too. Kennion played briefly vs. Georgia and saw much more playing time vs. Samford.

“Raashed Kennion came in the other night and got almost basically his baptism as far as getting to play some,” Johnson said. “Whether he will be up for this or not, I don’t know.” Lambert was injured on the first defensive play for the Tigers in the Samford game.

LaDarius Owens

*Malzahn said it will be important that LaDarius Owens step up and play well at defensive end. “He is a senior, been around here a long time, and this will be his last Iron Bowl so I definitely know he will be ready. He is excited about it. Without Lambert those defensive ends will get some more time.”

*Another defensive lineman, tackle Jeffrey Whitaker, will miss the Alabama game as he continues to recover from a back problem. Malzahn said he hopes the fifth-year senior will be healthy enough to finish his playing days in Auburn’s bowl game. “He has meant a lot to our program on and off the field,” the coach said. “He has been a leader--that would be good.”

*Against SEC teams the Tigers are averaging more total yards per game than they do for all contests. Auburn is gaining an average of 504.1 yards in its seven SEC games with averages of 284 yards on the ground and 220.1 passing yards. For all games the Tigers are averaging 476.1 yards per contest.

*Auburn’s best offensive team statistic is a .547 third down conversion rate, which is second nationally behind Georgia Tech’s .583.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Auburn’s highest ranking in national statistics is third in red zone defense. Opponents have made 45 trips inside Auburn’s 20-yard line. On those possessions they have scored 23 touchdowns and eight field goals while coming up empty 14 times. Six of those possessions ended in turnovers with three interceptions and three fumbles.

*Alabama is ranked second nationally in run defense, allowing 85.3 yards per game. Overall, opponents are averaging 283.1 yards per game vs. the Tide, a number that puts Alabama fifth nationally this week. Alabama has allowed just two rushing touchdowns this season, the fewest of any FBS defense.

*Cameron Artis-Payne goes into his last regular season game rushing for an SEC-leading 127.7 yards per contest. His 1,405 yards is the highest rushing total for an Auburn player after 11 games since 1985 when Bo Jackson ran for 1,786 yards on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

*Alabama has a 15-game winning streak at Bryant-Denny Stadium with its last home loss coming to Texas A&M in 2012.

*Coach Nick Saban has a 6-6 record in games vs. the Tigers. He was 2-3 vs. Auburn while at LSU and is 4-3 as head coach at Alabama.

*For the season the Tigers are plus three in turnover margin with 21 takeaways on 16 interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Auburn has lost 12 fumbles and been intercepted six times.

Alabama is minus one in turnover margin. The Tide has nine interceptions and six fumble recoveries while turning the ball over 12 times on fumbles and four times on interceptions.

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