But Ellis Johnson knows Auburn’s 38-9 victory over Arkansas State last Saturday victory was closer than it looked.
The defensive coordinator was satisfied his unit was able to keep Arkansas State out of the end zone, which hadn’t happened to the Red Wolves in nearly five years. Not that Johnson believed he played too big of a part in that accomplishment.
“I don’t know that it’s any credit to me,” he said. “I know one thing that we always as a defensive staff, we emphasize finishing series, finishing plays. You can’t let one bad play turn into a disaster. We certainly don’t have the philosophy that each series, ‘We want to give up 50 yards, but don’t give up a touchdown.’”
While the Red Wolves’ offense may have bogged down once it reached the red zone, one problem it didn’t have was moving the ball. Arkansas State compiled 422 yards against Auburn, with 272 through the air and 150 on the ground. It came one week after Washington State had similar success, finishing with 464 yards of offense.
Johnson said there’s only one solution to cut down on those totals going forward: His defense has to take out the “trash.”
“We’re making too many mistakes right now — ‘trash plays,’ I call them, where we’re in position to make plays and we’re not getting it done,” he said. “You certainly have to give a lot of credit to these two offenses we’ve played. I don’t know how good they’re going to be or what’s going to happen by the end of the season, but they’re two well-coaches, well-schemed, two very opposite approaches, and they’ve executed and out-executed us a few times too.”
One of those miscues last Saturday came immediately to Johnson’s mind. In the third quarter, senior linebacker Jake Holland was in prime position to make an open-field tackle on Arkansas State quarterback Adam Kennedy. However, Holland bit on a pump-fake and Kennedy took advantage, picking up 28 yards before he was finally brought down. It was a glaring error on Holland’s part, Johnson said, not just because he whiffed on an easy takedown.
What compounded the error was that Holland should have stayed with the pass-catcher he was initially defending on the play.
“He was in zone coverage and the quarterback broke the pocket again and he probably should have matched up with the receiver and held on because our defensive line has got to back in pursuit,” Johnson said. “He started to pick a guy up and then went back towards the quarterback and it was too late.”
After giving up a combined 886 yards of total offense in two games, Johnson was asked if he viewed his defense as a “bend-but-don’t-break” unit. He laughed off the assertion and made a joke of his own.
“I think I was in the third grade when that term started, and as you all can see I’m pretty old,” Johnson said. “We certainly don’t have a philosophy of that, but when you’re having a bad series or there are mistakes or you know your football team is not on cue, sometimes you go back to base defense. You might give up a six-yarder and a seven-yarder and four-yarder, but the 20-yards has got to stop. “
Head coach Gus Malzahn has the utmost faith that the defense will eventually do just that. Much like the offense, he said, there is still much room for improvement.
“We have a lot of new guys out there. We have a lot of inexperienced guys,” Malzahn said. “You are going to make some mistakes out there, and we have, but when you find a way to keep them out of the end zone, I think that is big. That will help moving forward.”
Johnson agreed. Any time an opponent is held without a touchdown, he said, “you’ve done something right.” No, allowing nearly 900 yards of offense and 52 first downs (28 to Washington State, 24 to Arkansas) didn’t prevent Auburn from staking itself out to a 2-0 start.
Those kind of numbers won’t cut it as the season goes on, though. And Johnson knows it.
The SEC is too formidable to let teams ring up those kinds of numbers and expect to walk out of a stadium unscathed.
“We’ve got to get some of that yardage off the board because down the road it’s going to come back to bite us,” he said. “It’s going to get us in possession time, fatigue and everything else. We’ve got to get ourselves off the field.”