Nobody on the Auburn coaching staff knows more about the Cardinals than offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, whose final game as a coach at Tulsa last season was in his team's GMAC Bowl victory over Ball State.
With the 3-0 Tigers a 30-point favorite against the opponent from the Mid-American Conference, Auburn's coaches have been asked this week if game four will be a chance for the backups to see extensive action. Head coach Gene Chizik says the Tigers aren't taking that approach and are treating the Cardinals with respect. Malzahn says the same thing.
"You would like for some of those younger guys to step up and be ready," Malzahn says. "Hopefully that will happen, but I will tell you what--this Ball State bunch, we will not overlook them.
"I was fortunate enough to play against them in the bowl game last year," Malzahn points out. "I believe they were 12-1 at the time and they have a lot of those same players. We are going to do whatever it takes to win. If that means some of our younger guys get a chance to get in there and make some plays, that's great."
The Tigers worked out in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts for almost two hours on Tuesday evening in dry conditions, a major departure from practices last week as well as the West Virginia game.
"It was a good practice," Malzahn says. "I told our guys I really see our offensive players maturing with our focus. They were really tuned-in today, which was very encouraging. I think some of them are growing up and understanding the expectations because we have got to keep improving. We have got to get better each week."
Auburn is 2-0 all-time vs. a Ball State program that has undergone a lot of changes since last year with head coach Brady Hoke leaving for San Diego State and offensive coordinator Stan Parrish promoted to head coach. Malzahn notes that Ball State is definitely a different looking team on defense.
"They have got a new defensive coordinator," says Auburn's offensive coordinator, who adds, "They were an odd stack defense last year. This year they are an even front. They are sound. They play extremely hard. They have, I believe, six returning starters back and I am familiar with those guys."
Saturday's game will kick off at 6 p.m. and tickets are available. The contest will be televised by Fox Sports Net South.
Last Saturday the Tigers got one of their injured players back in action and Malzahn says Tim Hawthorne's return should bolster the wide receiver corps that was expected to get its most experienced player, Montez Billings, back in October. However, Billings, who was academically ineligible for the first month of the season, decided not to return to the team. That leaves Hawthorne as the most experienced receiver on the squad.
Hawthorne, a junior, missed the first two games recovering from a broken bone in his foot. He injured his foot in a workout in July when it was stepped on in a workout with teammates. He played briefly in Auburn's victory over West Virginia and was on the field for the opening kickoff as well as the first offensive play for the Tigers.
Hawthorne says he didn't expect to be ready to play until the Arkansas game next month, but notes his recovery, which includes rehab three to four times a day, has been ahead of schedule. "I spent a lot of time doing rehab," he points out.
Malzahn predicts Hawthorne will provide "some quality depth with a guy who has had game experience in the SEC." The coach adds, "He is a smart kid and Coach (wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor) Taylor thinks a lot of him and I think he can help us."
*Although the Tigers weren't in full pads on Tuesday evening, the defense spent part of the practice in tackling drills. Chizik says that is one of a variety of areas of the team that needs improvement.
"We are doing more tackling drills," notes junior linebacker Craig Stevens, who was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after making 11 tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown vs. West Virginia. "We were focusing on taking the proper angle to the ball and things like that."
Chizik says the Tigers need to get work for a pair of freshmen linebackers, Harris Gaston and Jonathan Evans. Stevens says he expects the freshmen will see more action this week and notes that sophomore linebacker Spencer Pybus, who missed the first three games with a concussion, is practicing again and hopes to be back in action soon.
In other news and notes:
*Defensive end Antoine Carter, who has been sidelined with a knee problem, has not played in the first three games, but that is likely to change this week. The junior is getting plenty of work in practice and is being prepared to play vs. the Cardinals.
*Wes Byrum, who is 5-5 on field goals and 16-16 on extra points, is averaging 10.3 points per game. That ranks the junior third in the SEC and 15th nationally in scoring.
*Last season Ball State head coach Stan Parrish was one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, which is presented to the nation's top assistant coach. Gene Chizik won the award as a defensive coordinator at Auburn. Parrish was the offensive coordinator last season during Ball State's 12-0 regular season and in the MAC Championship Game. He was promoted to head coach for the bowl game that Ball State lost to Tulsa after head coach Brady Hoke left the Cardinals to take over as head coach at San Diego State.
*Against West Virginia, walk-on Jason King, had worked on the scout team earlier this year, got prime time action as the fullback/H-back. "He stepped up and did a solid job and we asked a lot of him," Malzahn says.