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September 7, 2011Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Tuesday morning during his weekly press conference that the Tigers had to be more physical against Mississippi State than they were against Utah State.
The players found out exactly what Chizik meant Tuesday evening.
Auburn practiced for more than two hours in preparation for its SEC opener this weekend against the Bulldogs. The amount of time wasn't unusual for a Tuesday practice. The amount of contact was.
"We went to work," offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "It was a very physical practice. It was a very demanding practice. And that was good to see. For a normal Tuesday, there was a lot of contact, but contact is definitely needed right now."
After Auburn came from behind to beat Utah State last weekend, the common complaint or concern from the Tigers' coaches was the lack of physicality. Auburn's defense gave up 448 yards of total offense, 227 yards rushing and 38 points.
The Tigers' offense wasn't much better. Auburn passed for 286 yards, but the Tigers, a team that is expected to rely heavily on its running game this season, rushed for just 78 yards.
"We wanted to run the football early, but weren't able to be successful," said Malzahn. "We weren't able to get first downs. We didn't run very many plays in the first half."
Auburn rushed 11 times and passed five times in the first half. The Tigers longest offensive possession was a seven-play drive in the second quarter that resulted in a punt. During that drive, there were nearly half as many penalties (3) as plays (7).
Besides a 56-yard touchdown pass from Barrett Trotter to Emory Blake, Auburn had just two first downs in the first half. The Tigers ran just 16 total offensive plays and had possession of the ball for nine of the 30 minutes.
Malzahn said he went into the game with a plan, but not being able to run the football, not being able to run more plays, get first downs and lose the time of possession were not part of it.
"We definitely ran the football in the first half and that was our plan," he said. "Ideally, we'd like to run more plays and open it up a little bit more and keep them off balance more, but we had a first-time starter at quarterback and wanted to run the ball early."
Auburn opened up its offense more in the second half, but the Tigers had more chances. They ran 38 plays and threw 17 more times. The result was a 42-38 come-from-behind win.
But the slow start in the running game must be avoided Saturday against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs return several starters on defense, a unit filled with familiar faces to Malzahn and Auburn.
"They are a very good defense," said Malzahn. "A lot of those guys up front and in the secondary we have been playing against for the last three years. They are a very experienced defense. They are very physical, very fast, and it will be a challenge for us."
Overcoming the challenge starts with being able to run the football.
"We have to find a way to run the ball," said Malzahn. "If we do that we will have a chance to be a good offense."
Although Auburn didn't run as many offensive plays as it would like, Trotter, the first-year starter, made the most of his opportunities.
The fourth-year junior completed 17-of-23 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
More importantly, no interceptions.
"I thought he had a solid performance," Malzahn said. "I was pleased with the way he protected the football. That's the No. 1 thing you worry about with an inexperienced guy. He also led us to two touchdown drives at the end and those were positives.
"There were some that he missed, but he's a competitor and I expect him to get better each week."
Trotter admitted he was nervous going into his first start, but the gameday atmosphere at Auburn helped calm him.
"It took me a while to go to bed (Friday night), and when I woke up I was nervous," said Trotter. "But once we got to Tiger Walk and went through it and then walked out onto the field and into the locker room, it was just football from then on.
"I really wasn't nervous once I got the pads on."
Malzahn said one issue in the running game could be the new offensive line. Auburn returns just one starter from a year ago, Brandon Mosley, who played left tackle against Utah State after playing right tackle last year as a junior. Two freshmen started in center Reese Dismukes and right tackle Chad Slade. Senior Jared Cooper was at left guard and junior John Sullen at right guard. Blake Burgess also played right guard in the second half.
Changes could be on the way, Malzahn said.
"We are still gathering information," he said. "With an inexperienced team with a lot of unknowns, I think as coaches you learn a lot each game. I look back at last year and we had a lot of the pieces of the puzzle already in place, but we really didn't figure out our identity, our true identity, probably until game four.
"We are gathering information each week and our goal is to get the best 11 on the field and get the ball to our best players. We are still a work in progress and each week we are looking to improve."
Malzahn said he isn't overly concerned with the offensive line, not when they are being coached by Jeff Grimes.
"We have to get better. There's no doubt about that, but Coach Grimes is one of the best in the business and I know he will get those guys ready," said Malzahn. "Our guys came out (to Tuesday's practice) with a really good mindset to play physical football.
"The encouraging thing is we really feel like they can get better each week. It's just a matter of how quick they can get the communications, the cohesions. It takes a lot for an offensive line to gel together so hopefully that will happen quicker rather than later."
*** Sullen started the game against Utah State, but didn't finish it. Burgess played the majority of the second half while Sullen rode the stationary bike. Chizik said he expects Sullen to be ready to return Saturday.
"We are anticipating him being able to go," said Chizik.
*** Although there weren't many positives for the Tigers to take away from the Utah State win, there were some, said Malzahn.
"We didn't turn the football over. That's very important," he said. "And then we found a way to win. There are a lot of teams that can't find a way to win."
*** Junior wideout DeAngelo Benton was a hot topic during fall camp, but played sparingly Saturday against Utah State. Malzahn said he had hoped to get Benton and others into the game much quicker and for more reps.
"You have a plan to play a lot of different players, but the way the game transpires changes some things," Malzahn said. "We would have liked to play some other guys, not only DeAngelo, but some other guys, but with the way the game transpired and the urgency, it changed things.
"The fact we had only 50-something plays didn't help, either, for not only him, but others that you will see on the field as the year goes on."
*** Freshman running back/returner Tre Mason scored the first time he carried the football in a college scrimmage. It took him three times in a college game. Saturday against Utah State, Mason returned the third Aggie kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. He finished the day with four returns for 176 yards and the score.
Mason said part of being a successful kickoff returner is having a lack of fear.
"That's just how I was raised all of my life with everything: Don't fear anything but God. Fear nothing but God," said Mason. "I just stepped out there with my confidence and I felt in my heart that I could do it, that I'm ready for it. I just tried my best and a great outcome came."
Mason said his mother got emotional after seeing her son score his first collegiate touchdown.
"My family was really excited," he said. "My mom said she started crying. I love my family and my parents."