Marshall: Tigers Concerned With Running Game

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn's running game and the similarities to another Auburn team from almost two decades ago.

There were a lot more smiles in the Auburn locker room Saturday. Certainly, the defense had plenty of reason to smile after a 28-0 victory over Mississippi State. Shutouts in Southeastern Conference games are rare.

The offense had some reasons to smile, too, but also some reasons to frown. And in the next two scrimmages – I mean games – against Ball State and Western Kentucky, those things will certainly get a lot of attention.

In no way should a 28-0 SEC victory ever be viewed as unimpressive, but the running game sputtered. And that is a concern to players and coaches.

I don't believe there is much doubt the Tigers could have passed for 300-plus yards and scored more points against Mississippi State if they had chosen to open it up in the second half. But, confident that the defense had things under control, Auburn coaches chose to run even when Mississippi State packed the box.

It was reminiscent of the 1989 season. Auburn was having trouble running then, too. Pat Dye decreed the Tigers would run or lose trying against Mississippi State. They threw just a handful of passes and won 14-0. Dye was delighted.

Kenny Irons should see more playing time this week with starter Tre Smith banged up with a sprained knee.

Clearly, to meet some of the challenges that lie ahead, the Tigers must run the ball more consistently than they have in the past two games. The reason they have struggled goes deeper than the offensive line.

Young backs sometimes don't run the right track. A young quarterback sometimes checks to the wrong side. And, yes, sometimes offensive linemen miss assignments, don't finish blocks or just get beat. Even when all those things go right, it's still very difficult to run when there are more defenders in the box than there are blockers to deal with them.

All the physical things that have gone wrong can be fixed. But the biggest need might not be physical at all. There were plenty of leaders on offense last season, when the Tigers went 13-0 and won the SEC championship. That kind of leadership has seemingly not emerged this season.

Preseason All-America tackle Marcus McNeill said this after Saturday's game:
"We definitely want to get more physical up front. I feel like we came out ready to play. When we saw we were superior to Mississippi State, we kind of slacked off. We can't do that."

No doubt, offensive line coach Hugh Nall will have some choice words about that kind of approach.

Last season, any number of players would have met such a mindset head-on. There are defensive players this season with that kind of personality. On offense, if they're there, they have not been easy to see, particularly among those in the trenches.

That's what Saturday's second half was all about, challenging blockers and runners to keep fighting even when would-be tacklers were seemingly coming from every direction.

After two games, Auburn is 1-1 and really should be 2-0. The Tigers have flaws, but it's early. Every team I have seen has flaws. LSU certainly has to be concerned about giving up more than 400 yards passing in a 35-31 victory over Arizona State. Georgia has to be concerned about struggling to move the ball against South Carolina. Tennessee has to be concerned about its passing problems. Arkansas, after losing to Vanderbilt, has to be concerned about just about everything, especially with a trip to Southern California less than a week away. The list could go on.

Practices will not be easy at Auburn the next two weeks. Victories over Ball State and Western Kentucky might not be as impressive as some would like, because specific game preparation will not be the top priority. Getting better in time to take on the likes of South Carolina, LSU, Georgia and Alabama will be.

No one can say right now where this Auburn team is headed, just like no one can say where most other teams are headed. Those that have talent and improve will be contenders. Talent won't be enough for those that don't improve.

The Tigers are not likely to suddenly become the SEC's best running team. Can they get good enough to win big games? They can, but whether they will is a question that can only be answered on the field.


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