Auburn confident defense can shut down Vandy

Published 8:26 am Friday, October 3, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The 13th-ranked Auburn Tigers pride themselves on playing anorexic defense against the run. No. 19 Vanderbilt’s spread offense is much more about running the ball than throwing.

Something will have to give Saturday.

“They are really tough. They’re big, and they’re fast,” Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson said of Auburn’s defensive line.

“We’re going to have to have a big game plan. Hopefully, we can get in the middle. If not, we’ll find ways to get outside, but our running game won’t change. We have very competent running backs, and we’re going to put forth a strategy to get those guys to be successful.”

The Commodores (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) will be playing their first game since moving into the Top 25 for the first time since 1984, trying to reach 5-0 for the first time since the middle of World War II. This will be the sixth straight game for Auburn (4-1, 2-1), and the Tigers are coming off a 14-12 win over Tennessee.

The Tigers lead this series 20-19-1 and have won 13 straight dating back to the 1955 Gator Bowl. They thumped the Commodores 35-7 last year at Auburn, but Nickson warns that nobody should overlook Vanderbilt now.

“We have a lot of talent here. We have a great strategy, a great coaching staff. We can do things. We don’t make too many mistakes and come out and get in over our heads. I feel we can take advantage of anybody in the SEC or the nation,” he said.

Thankfully, Vandy has the undefeated record to back up those bold words because the Commodores won’t worry too many defenses with the statistics they’ve put up so far. They rank last in the SEC and 112th nationally in total offense with 282.8 yards per game and 116th nationally with a slim 80.8 yards passing.

But the Commodores’ strength in their spread offense comes from the run. They hold the ball for 31 minutes, 4 seconds per game — 40th in the country. Jared Hawkins has run for 314 yards followed by Nickson with 270 yards and a team-high five touchdowns on the ground. They average 202 yards per game, which is third in the SEC and 26th nationally.

“They like to run it, but our defense is pretty good against the run,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. “We’ve seen a lot of running teams lately. We run a lot as an offense. Our guys go against our guys a lot. It will be great challenge for us to see what we have learned defensively over the last five games.”

That the Tigers surely do.

They are why Auburn has outscored opponents 62-9 in the first half and rank fifth in the SEC in scoring defense (10.6 points per game). But against the run they are allowing only 92.2 yards and just one touchdown rushing through five games.

Auburn defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks said they have studied the Commodores.

“We seen them running hard down hill, tough guys running the ball down hill. You got speed. You don’t see too many white guys like that,” Marks said of Hawkins, who has a long run of 40 yards. “We know we got to contain him. We know he’s hard-nosed. He really doesn’t have any fear about anything.”

Vandy also takes good care of the ball. The Commodores have had only five turnovers and are among three teams nationally who haven’t been intercepted. They also are tied with Pittsburgh for fewest penalties, are one of only three teams that have not been intercepted and lead in the SEC in both interceptions (10) and sacks (11).

Tuberville will be playing both Chris Todd and Kodi Burns after the Tigers rolled up only 226 yards offense against Tennessee.

“It’s tough on everybody. We switch defensive line every three plays, linebackers probably every five plays and receivers every play. Quarterbacks are not any different. They have got to be mentally ready to play when their number is called,” Tuberville said.

The Tigers’ biggest challenge will be quieting a sold-out crowd eager to see if the Commodores can make history and win their third straight SEC game for the first time since 1982 — the last time they had a winning season or went to a bowl. They’ve won three straight league games only seven times.

“People at Vanderbilt, they’re excited they’ve got a good team this year,” Auburn center Ryan Pugh said. “We’ve seen them on film, and they’re Vanderbilt, they play smart, they play fast, it’s just another good SEC defense that you’re going to play. But we’ve got to be prepared. They’re definitely going to be a good football team.”