Through the first four games of the season, Auburn (5-3, 3-2 SEC) was averaging 35.2 points per game. Over the last four, the Tigers are averaging 13.2, leaving coaches in fix it mode with four regular-season games to play.
“If you really look at the big picture, it’s been for various reasons,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. “You can start with some changes on the offensive line that have occurred along with some changes at the wide receiver position, which handcuffs you a little bit in what you can do in terms of throwing the ball down the field. There was nothing where we definitively said we’ve got to get more conservative with x, y and z to help this part of our team. We’ve never done that. Now, during the games, do we manage the games as they are needed? Yes. But again, we’re not executing very well and that’s not to pin anything on a position.”
The changes Chizik refers to have mostly been injury-related.
The offensive line, already young, has had to shuffle players in, out and around the front five to compensate for a variety of injuries, most notably guard Jared Cooper who is out for the season.
At wide receiver, the Tigers have been missing their top two — Emory Blake and Trovon Reed.
Reed (shoulder) played on a limited basis in last week’s 45-10 loss to top-ranked LSU. Blake (high ankle sprain) remains sidelined indefinitely.
“The reality of it is we have not executed well as a whole group,” Chizik said. “Is part of that because of continuity, of different people being at different spots, of course it is. When you lose an Emory Blake and a Trovon Reed for a month, the continuity of what you’re trying to do throwing the football down the field changes completely. When you lose your starting left guard two and a half weeks ago, whenever that was, that changes the continuity of some things. So not making injuries an excuse, the reality of it is that there are some challenges that we have to overcome that we have not overcome yet.”
Auburn has remained reasonably consistent in the running game. Through the first four games, the Tigers were averaging 171.7 rushing yards on 33.7 carries per game.
Over the last four games, the Tigers have leaned heavily on the run, averaging 194.7 yards per game on 49.5 carries.
Auburn knows it’s difficult to win in the SEC playing one-dimensional football, but the Tigers’ inability to execute the vertical passing game has been a serious problem.
“There have been times when the offensive line has played well and the receivers have dropped balls,” Chizik said. “There have been times when the receivers are open and the offensive line hasn’t done a great job combined with the tailbacks of protecting. There have been times where the tailbacks have opportunities because there are holes made and they don’t make the correct cut. It’s really a combination of things.”
The lack of adequate protection by the offensive line and the inability of Auburn’s receivers to get open and catch balls on deeper routes has been a deadly combination.
Auburn quarterback Clint Moseley, who made his first career start last week in relief of Barrett Trotter, was sacked six times.
“When we went three-and-out and gave up a sack, (Moseley) come to the O-line and said, `Come on y’all, we can do it, we can do it. I still trust you guys. Give me a little time. Give me a little time,’” said offensive lineman John Sullen. “He’s a very patient guy. But when it comes down to it, we’ve just got to protect better.”
Auburn has four games remaining to make something of its season, starting at home Saturday against Ole Miss (2-5, 0-4 SEC). The Tigers will take a much-needed off week following Saturday’s game, then close out the season at Georgia followed by home games against Samford and Alabama.
“Yeah, we’re down, yeah we’ve got a lot to learn, but at the same time we realize that (LSU) was a really good team and we didn’t play nearly as well as we could have,” Moseley said. “We know that we have to bounce back and that’s what our focus is this week — to bounce back against Ole Miss. I feel as good as we can right now, given the situation.”
Charles Bennett covers Auburn University sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @AUTigers_Star