Leading the league in total offense at 434 yards per outing, second in scoring offense at 36.6 points per game and second in rushing offense at 229.4 yards per game on the strength of Carnell Williams and an improving offensive line, the Tigers have suddenly become a dangerous team for opposing defenses.
"I think the running game is coming around a lot more," redshirt freshman strong tackle Taylor Bourgeois said. "I think Coach (Bobby) Petrino brings a lot more balance and a lot more dimensions than we've had. He's a great coach and his system works great. He's proven that with all the teams he's been with."
Bourgeois has been a major reason why the offensive line has continued to develop in 2002. Struggling with an injured shoulder for most of the spring and off-and-on early in fall practice, the Nashville native's uncertainty had coach Hugh Nall scratching his head searching for answers up front. The first option was moving junior Monreko Crittenden back out to tackle and that worked in the opener against USC, but Nall quickly decided his best option was keeping the big guy inside at guard. That meant a shot for Bourgeois. Although he split time with true freshman Marcus McNeill until the Syracuse game, Bourgeois' play has given the group some consistency up front and that was desperately needed for the offense to mature.
Bourgeois (72) with Troy Reddick (66) wait for their turn during a blocking drill Tuesday.
Nowhere has that been more evident than when teams stack the line of scrimmage to stop Williams. The SEC's leading rusher and ninth in the country with 127.8 yards per game, the sophomore continues to pile up the yardage against every defense designed to stop him. Bourgeois said you can give Williams all the acclaim.
"That's just a credit to Carnell Williams," Bourgeois noted. "He's a special football player. You can't really say more than that. The kid is awesome."
Auburn enters the game against Arkansas with some unfinished business following last season's dreadful result in Fayetteville. A traveler but just a bystander in the game, Bourgeois said he sees a different attitude this season than last as the Tigers prepare for the Hogs.
"I think we were feeling good about ourselves," said Bourgeois of the 2001 Arkansas game week. "We just didn't practice very hard. I think we thought we could just go out there and come away with a victory no matter how we played. If anyone watched the game the other night (Arkansas vs. Tennessee) they'll see that Arkansas is a real good team. I think we all know that. There is a sense of urgency around here and hopefully we'll play like we're practicing."
That might not be a good idea after what defensive coordinator Gene Chizik called "not a very good practice" on Tuesday. Practicing for two hours in shorts and helmets, the Tigers continued to sharpen the game plan in preparation for the Razorbacks. Defensively, that means working on ways to stop quarterback Matt Jones, which Chizik said they didn't do a good job of in practice.
"We had a pretty tough practice today actually," Chizik said. "We looked a little sluggish today. We've really concentrated on trying to tackle the quarterback and today we didn't do a very good job of it. We have to come back tomorrow and pick up the pace and get this done. If we can't tackle him in practice then we won't be able to tackle him in the game Saturday. We've got two more days to get ready. We have to get it done in the next two days."
Quarterback Daniel Cobb continued to show improvement on Tuesday. Here he throws on the run during a passing drill.
With both Will Herring and Todd Bradford playing the role of Jones, Chizik said the defense struggled to get a feel for the ball handling that he does in a game. A former quarterback in Herring and a current wide receiver in Bradford, the duo combined to give the defensive coaches a pretty good look for what they'll see Saturday.
"We just kind of mixed it in and out," Chizik said. "We really had them keep the ball a lot and basically read it. They threw the shuck-and-jive on us today and it worked. They did it today."
Because of his ability to run the ball and keep plays alive, Jones presents a unique challenge for the Auburn defense. With big play receivers on the outside to throw to, the sophomore must be kept in check up front while the secondary continues to cover longer than normal.
"We'll really have to stay on those guys about scrambles," Chizik said of the Tiger secondary. "Because he's so elusive he gets himself out of trouble and out of the pocket the defensive back thinks he has to come up and guard the line of scrimmage, but he didn't and there goes the ball behind you. That's really something that we're talking to our kids right now."
Defensive linemen Spencer Johnson and Reggie Torbor both practiced part-time on Tuesday as they continue to battle nagging injuries that have hampered them for much of the season. Chizik said both will be fine for Saturday, but will likely have to play through the pain for the rest of the season.
Offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino was more upbeat about what he saw at Tuesday's workout. "I thought we had a real good practice and got a lot of things done," he said.
The Tigers will continue to polish up on both offense and defense in preparation for Saturday's 11:30 a.m. kickoff against Arkansas. The team will practice Wednesday and Thursday before having a short walk-through on Friday before heading to the hotel for the night. Saturday morning's Tiger Walk will begin at 9:20 a.m. with members of the 1972 team and the 2002 Women's NCAA Championship Swim Team the honorary guests.