Auburn gets back to basics

Auburn appears to be on track after an abysmal start to the 2003 season, and the Tigers are righting the ship in typical fashion -- utilizing a ball-control offense and stingy defense.

College football analysts and hopeful fans hyped Auburn as a top-five team nationally in preseason discussions, some even calling the Tigers a national championship quality team. The talk ended quickly when the Tigers opened the year with losses to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech.

But a humbled group of Tigers managed to recover in their most recent games, pounding Vanderbilt 45-7 and Western Kentucky 48-3.

The heralded Auburn running game has begun to live up to its billing, averaging 250 yards per game after being limited to a total of 83 yards in the first two games.

Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams were already established runners. In Saturday's win over Western Kentucky, Brandon Jacobs proved the Tigers have three capable rushers, totaling 103 yards on the ground. Brown had 80 yards rushing and Williams 71 yards.

The passing game has also made strides. Quarterback Jason Campbell passed for 173 yards and threw a 36-yard scoring pass to Silas Daniels. Courtney Taylor and Jeris McIntyre have been the top receivers.

The Auburn defense, which returned a number of talented players from last year, hasn't missed a beat. Opponents have been held to 92 yards rushing and 145 yards passing.

Linebackers Dontarious Thomas and Karlos Dansby have been the leaders, along with defensive end Reggie Torbor and nose guard DeMarco McNeil.

Torbor warns that the strong performances came against inferior opponents, and that Tennessee offers a completely different challenge.

''It will be the toughest game so far,'' he said. ''They are a great team as evidenced by their record (4-0). They have fight in them, and they know how to win close games. We've got to play our best to win. It won't be like the last two games.''

Still, the recent wins represent progress, the kind that provides the confidence needed to rejuvenate the Tigers.

An open date before the Western Kentucky game enabled the Auburn coaching staff to regroup, juggle the lineup slightly and try a few players at new positions.

''We needed the open date to get back to basics,'' head coach Tommy Tuberville said. ''We went over some things that we are having trouble with. We looked at some personnel changes to try to get the right combination of guys on the field in order to give us a chance.

''We had a very physical off week. We went against each other and made each other better. We looked at everything we have been doing on offense and defense to try to make us better. The biggest thing we needed to work on is our consistency. We have made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball. We went back and worked on that to see how we can improve on them. We need to keep the momentum.''

A win over Tennessee on Saturday would be a huge stride in the right direction for the Tigers. With opponents gearing their efforts to stopping the running attack, the Tigers have worked hard to build a strong passing game.

''We worked a lot on throwing the football (in recent practices),'' Tuberville said. ''We worked on throwing the ball in different sets and getting the ball down field. Obviously, running the football is our forte, but the way teams have been playing us, we've got to get the ball downfield.''

The key to improved passing hinges greatly on the offensive line play, and Tuberville says improvements have been made.

''We've been trying to put the quarterbacks under a lot of pressure in practice by blitzing, zone blitzing and rushing four guys from one side. Mentally, they've been pretty good, but we've got to do a better job of not letting the pocket collapse.''

Among the themes in team meetings after the two losses was the need to be more assertive in all areas of the game.

''You can't just sit back and wait for good things to happen,'' Tuberville said. ''We told that to our players and they have responded. We have to keep finding ways to score points and cause turnovers.

''The thing we pointed out is that one guy making a mistake can cost us. We have had plays where one guy misses a block or we don't block enough downfield or we don't make the catch. That is what happens to you in a slump. As long as we keep our players playing with the intensity they have been giving and the effort they have been giving, we are going to have a chance. We still have a chance to have a good season.''

A key personnel change involved moving Anthony Mix to receiver from tight end.

''We are trying to get him in a situation where we have some better matchups for him,'' Tuberville said. ''He has great hands, great speed and a big body.''

Defensively, the Tigers have been outstanding at preventing third-down conversions. Auburn has allowed just 8 of 40 third downs to be converted. Vanderbilt managed just 2 of 12 conversions against the Tigers. Dating back to last year, the Tigers have allowed their last six opponents to 16 of 84 third-down conversions.

McNeil has been extremely active on defense, totaling 21 tackles with three tackles-for-loss, a sack and a fumble recovery.

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