September 8, 2011 10:58:00 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Auburn University football coach Gene Chizik left Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday feeling Utah State pushed his bigger team around in the season opener for both teams.
Even though Auburn rallied for two scores in the final three-plus minutes for a 42-38 victory, Chizik knows his team will have to be the bully at 11:21 a.m. Saturday (WCBI) against No. 16 Mississippi State.
"It is of the utmost importance," Chizik said. "If we don''t do anything else better, we better be more physical than we were last week. You can look at the physicality of our special teams. It is more in line with where we need to be. Our special teams are made up of offensive players and defensive players, same guys that play on offense and defense, so we have it in us."
Against a smaller Utah State team that was coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Auburn allowed 227 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground (4.3 yards per carry).
"I feel like there were some mental errors out there that really kept us from getting off the field several times, from alignments to leverages, technique," said Chizik, whose team still managed to extend the longest winning streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) to 16. "Top-to-bottom, (it was) a lackluster performance."
Auburn''s inexperience can be blamed for the mental errors. The Tigers have only six starters back from the 2010 national championship season.
On the offensive line Saturday, senior Brandon Moseley had all of Auburn''s career 11 starts. Last season''s front five had a combined 109 starts before the season and helped pave the way for Cam Newton to lead the Tigers to the national title and to win the 2010 Heisman Trophy.
"When you''re a defensive player, you are physical when you don''t have to think very much," Chizik said. "The same thing goes for the offensive line. The same thing goes with the running backs hitting the ball downhill. The less they have to think because it becomes more of a second-nature type, muscle memory type action, the more physical you can be and play."
On defense, Auburn had just one sack and seven quarterback hurries in 31 passing attempts. Utah State also was 8-for-8 on third-down conversions when it needed 6 yards or less to convert. As a result, the Aggies had a 15-minute, 22-second edge in time of possession (37:41-22:19).
"You can really start off at the top at us not being able to get off the field on third down and us not being able to get first downs and run the football offensively," Chizik said. "You can take those two and do the math and figure out why their time of possession was so much more than ours."
Auburn also is trying to find a way to replace its playmakers. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the second player in Auburn history to win the Lombardi Award (nation''s best defensive lineman), was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. Fairley, who had an interception last season against MSU in Starkville, led Auburn with 24 tackles for loss and 11 1/2 sacks.
MSU senior center Quentin Saulsberry said Tuesday he doesn''t think the mistakes Auburn''s young players made against Utah State will translate to Saturday''s encounter.
"Those guys that were there with Fairley leading them set a standard for that defensive line," Saulsberry said. "Everybody has their jitters in the first game and, at the same time, they''re good players that are on scholarship just like we are."
On paper, MSU''s offensive line, which is breaking in one new starter -- senior left tackle James Carmon -- figures to have an edge in experience that should be crucial in a road game in the SEC.
"Controlling the line of scrimmage controls the tempo of the game,"
MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "If you can control that pace, control the ball, and Utah State is a great example of that, it takes the crowd out of it (and) calms things down."
In 26 games as coach at MSU, Mullen''s teams have eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in all but one. It has rushed for 117 and 167 yards against Auburn the past two seasons, but it has dropped the past three games in the series. Last season, Vick Ballard had only five rushes for 13 yards, as MSU was still figuring out its rotation. Against Memphis, Ballard needed only 10 carries to get a career-high 166 rushing yards.
"They are physical (and) they have a great complementary passing game to their running game, so scoring over 50 points in their last two games is not by accident," said Chizik, referring to the MSU''s 52-14 victory against the University of Michigan in the Gator Bowl. "If we can''t match that, it''s going to be a long night defensively, but we have to be very sound in what we are doing."
Chizik will have to rely on his younger players to mature quickly to accomplish that goal. Against Utah State, Auburn played the second-most freshman (13) of any team. Only Texas (18) used more freshmen in the first week.
"A lot of guys saw their own game film for the first time," Chizik said. "I think there were a lot of points made everywhere on all sides of the ball (that) this is not going to win at this level. I think it was eye opening to a lot of our guys. That''s why we will expect them to be much better this week."