Saturday’s 38-24 loss at Clemson highlighted problems that have Auburn’s players and coaches searching for answers as the Tigers (2-1) prepare to play Florida Atlantic (0-2) Saturday.
“I thought we did some things really well and other times it breaks your heart to see how close we were to making a play work and getting an extra 10-15 yards, where we ended up with a negative play,” said Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter. “Not good for us. We’ve got to fix that and make sure those type of things don’t happen.”
Part of the problem on offense as well as defense has been third down conversions.
Auburn converted five times in 13 attempts on third down against Clemson. For the season, Auburn has converted on third down at a rate of 35.3 percent, which finds the Tigers ranked ninth in the SEC, just ahead of Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
“Really, we just need more consistency,” said Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. “We show at times that we can be the number one offense in the country. Then on some drives we take 30 seconds off the clock, run three plays and go three-and-out. So I think just being more consistent all across the board will help definitely our offense but also our team because it gives the defense a little more time to get off the field to make their corrections and get their wind back.”
Auburn is significantly worse defensively on third down. The Tiger are last in the nation in third-down conversion defense, with opponents converting at a rate of 63.6 percent.
However, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said it’s the combination of poor third-down execution on both sides of the ball that is hampering the Tigers.
“It’s just a numbers game,” Chizik said. “It reduces the number of opportunities. When defensively we can’t get off the field, it reduces the opportunities for our offense, but conversely, offensively when we can’t convert third downs it makes it harder on the defense. Let’s not forget the critical importance of third downs offensively. We’re not able to convert right now at a rate that’s pleasing to us.”
Lutzenkirchen said he expects the offense to pick things up this week, which will in turn help the defense.
“This whole team, third down, offensively and defensively, we’ve been struggling at that,” he said. “Our percentage is not very good at all. We’ll get back to the drawing board and try to figure out some plays that’ll get the chains to move. And I think that’ll in turn help the defense’s third-down rate by giving them some rest and giving them the chance to get off the field.
“We definitely need to correct our third downs.”
While Auburn is at or near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every defensive category, the Tigers aren’t exactly lighting it up on offense either.
Auburn ranks eighth in the SEC in scoring offense (35.7 points per game) and eighth in total offense (393.3 yards per game).
However, Auburn’s running game is beginning to emerge. The Tigers rank fifth in the SEC in rushing offense at 183.3 yards per game.
Tailback Mike Dyer is second in the SEC in rushing at 119.3 yards per game. South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore leads with 178 yards per game, but has 39 more carries than Dyer.
“We’re taking baby steps here and finding positives in everything we’re trying to do,” Chizik said.
“And there was a good deal of negatives, but there were some positives. I feel like most of our inside running game, our run fits and our gap fits up there for the downhill running game, for the most part, improved a great deal over the week before.”
Trotter said the Tigers are getting closer to establishing their offensive identity.
“I think we’re definitely getting closer to that,” he said.
“Anytime you’re playing with the same guys for a number of weeks, each game, each practice you’re going to get more and more comfortable knowing where guys are, knowing what you’re supposed to do and being able to count on the guy next to you that he knows. It is accountability, and I think that’s something we’re getting closer to.”
Charles Bennett covers Auburn University sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @AUTigers_Star