Can Auburn's defense prevent Texas A&M from making big plays?
Hidden in the afterglow of Auburn’s eye-opening offensive performance in its 51-14 win over Arkansas State last week is a glaring deficiency.
Two weeks into the season, the Tigers are showing a propensity for allowing big plays.
Through two games, Auburn has yielded 10 plays of 20 yards or more and 5 plays of 30 yards or longer. For comparison’s sake, the Tigers surrendered 50 plays of 20-plus yards and 15 plays of 30-plus yards all of last season, which spanned 13 games.
In its 19-13 season-opening loss to Clemson, AU held QB Deshaun Watson to 19 completions in 34 attempts for 248 yards. But five of those completions went for 20 yards or more, including one for 34.
The longest run Auburn allowed against Clemson went for 20 yards. None of Arkansas State’s runs went for 20, but the Red Wolves were able to complete passes of 34, 38, 42 and 68 yards.
It’s true that Arkansas State picked up most of its passing yardage in garbage time after it fell behind, 41-7. But Auburn’s tendency to give up big plays is important to point out when you consider the Tigers’ next opponent.
Texas A&M, which visits Auburn on Saturday night, comes off a 67-0 rout of Prairie View A&M. The Aggies had eight plays of 22 yards or longer against the Panthers, including six pass completions.
In its season-opening 31-24 overtime win over UCLA, Texas A&M managed just three plays of 20 yards or longer, two through the air. Despite that modest figure, Auburn should be concerned about the Aggies’ ability to make big plays.
Trevor Knight has won his first two games as A&M’s starting QB despite completing only 54.4 percent of his passes. However, he goes into the Auburn game with arguably the top receiving tandem in the SEC.
Sophomore Christian Kirk is tied for first in the conference with 13 receptions for 164 yards and 2 TDs. After averaging 12.61 yards per catch in 2015, Kirk is averaging 12.62 so far this season, so he’s been Mr. Consistency.
The guy Auburn has to look out for is Josh Reynolds. On his 6 catches, the senior wideout is averaging 21.8 yards, which ranks sixth in the SEC.
Throw in Ricky Seals-Jones, who ended Auburn cornerback Jeremiah Dinson’s freshman season with a devastating blindside block last year, and Texas A&M might have the best wide receiving corps in the country.
“I think they’re in the conversation,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday. “It looks to me like they’ve got guys going to the next level.”
Obviously, the onus for stopping Texas A&M’s dynamic duo will fall primarily on Auburn’s secondary — cornerbacks Joshua Holsey and Carlton Davis, and safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts. But they’re going to need help.
The Tigers’ starting defensive line — ends Carl Lawson and Marlon Davidson, and tackles Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell — will need to ramp up the pass rush to make sure Knight can’t spread the field.
Count Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone among those who have noticed how well Auburn’s defensive line has played this season:
A&M OC Noel Mazzone when informed Auburn’s d-line is a strength: No wonder (OL coach Jim) Turner didn’t show up for work today. (kidding)
— Brent Zwerneman (@BrentZwerneman) September 13, 2016
Auburn, which has allowed 254 passing yards per game, ranks ninth in the SEC in that category. Despite that, the Tigers are tied for second in the conference in terms of passing TDs allowed (1). Florida is the only SEC team yet to allow a score through the air.
If Auburn’s secondary can somehow contain the Aggies’ wideouts, the Tigers must also find a way to keep Knight from scrambling out of the pocket. Knight, the former Oklahoma QB, has averaged 5.8 yards per carry for his career.
The other former Sooner Auburn has to account for is running back Keith Ford, who is averaging 5.8 yards per attempt this season. The Tigers, who are allowing 108.5 rushing yards per game, are tied for fifth in the SEC with Vanderbilt.
So in order to end its tendency to yield big plays against the Aggies, Auburn must do the following: Keep A&M’s wideouts in check, pressure Knight into making bad decisions and stuff Ford at the line of scrimmage. Sounds like Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has his work cut out for him.
Coincidentally, Steele and Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis, who goes up against the Aggies’ offense every day in practice, are former high school and college teammates who played at Tennessee. But when it comes to potentially spilling state secrets about Mazzone’s game plan, we’re guessing Chavis is as tough to break down as one of his defenses.
Plus, Chavis has to worry about Auburn’s ability to make big plays, especially in the running game. We’ll see which team has the upper hand on Saturday night.