NASHVILLE – Auburn’s defense has been stuck in manual transmission – starting off in first gear and requiring time and a few shifts to accelerate.
On that side of the ball, the Tigers have shown they can make adjustments and settle into a groove. But week after week, Auburn’s defense has looked sluggish from the opening kickoff, either putting Auburn in an early hole or at least letting the other team dictate the tempo.
“Our first drive, we’ve been kind of slow, so we’re working on trying to amp each other up,” sophomore defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “It’s funny: it seems like a score actually makes us play harder, which is very weird.”
It’s maddening, this thorn in the side of Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
“We keep talking to them about their routines, before the game,” VanGorder said. “I think that’s really important. We’ve just got to be able to move faster, develop thought process faster, so we have a functioning defense. We’re not fast enough right now.”
Six straight games, Auburn’s opponent has taken the ball and shoved it down the Tigers’ throat on their first possession. In just about every instance, Auburn’s defense has shown resistance for extended periods.
In Saturday’s latest body blow, a 17-13 loss at Vanderbilt, the Commodores won the toss and elected to receive, deterring from most teams’ motive to take the ball in the second half.
On a day where Vanderbilt coach James Franklin made several questionable strategic decisions, this one paid off. The Commodores surgically marched on a 16-play drive lasting 8 minutes, 29 seconds – both season highs against VanGorder’s defense – and went 75 yards to draw first blood on Wesley Tate’s 7-yard touchdown.
The possession included 11 runs, two third-down conversions and two fourth-down conversions. All before the Tigers had a chance to touch the football.
“Frustrating,” VanGorder said. “I’m not used to having the ball run on our defenses. I’m not used to that at all, college and pro ball. So it’s a tough thing to sit and watch.”
The first defensive drive of the VanGorder era went backwards – Clemson ran six plays, but ultimately punted after a net loss of two yards. However, Clemson did run 13 and 11 snaps the ensuing two drives.
Since Sept. 1, all six rival offenses have begun by holding the ball at least nine plays and venturing no less than 56 yards. The results have ranged from three touchdowns to two missed field goals and one LSU fumble on the goal line. (Meanwhile, Auburn’s offense has a touchdown against Louisiana-Monroe sandwiched by six punts on its opening drives in 2012.)
Arguably Auburn’s best two overall efforts of the year have come against Clemson and LSU – the two night games. Every other Tigers kickoff has taken place before noon locally.
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say we play better at night,” Wright said. “But of course, we’re not an excuse team. If any player or coach had a choice, that late game would be a lot better.”
Auburn opponents’ opening drives (plays, yards, time elapsed, result)
Clemson | 6 plays, -2 yards, 3:02, punt*
*Next two drives: 13 plays, 11 plays
Mississippi State | 11, 56, 4:16, missed FG
Louisiana-Monroe | 12, 89, 6:38, TD
LSU | 11, 56, 5:34, fumble
Arkansas | 9, 67, 3:55, missed FG
Ole Miss | 9, 80, 3:30, TD
Vanderbilt | 16, 75, 8:25, TD