AUBURN - In Auburn’s last game against LSU, the home Tigers excelled at stopping the run and putting all the pressure on the opposing quarterback. It’s the same blueprint the Tigers hope to carry into Saturday's game against a Tennessee offense that has more questions than answers six games into the season.
The Volunteers’ offense has been up and down in 2020, but one of the few consistent parts of the offense has been its rushing attack. Whether it was senior Ty Chandler or sophomore Eric Gray leading the way, Tennessee has pounded the ball consistently all fall with 40 carries per contest, the second-most in the SEC behind only Missouri.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn understands that stopping the Volunteers on Saturday night starts and stops with leaving their ground game frustrated.
“They’ve got some talented guys up front. Their running backs run hard,” Malzahn said. “It looks like they’re committed to the run. A lot of games you could tell they are very, very committed to the run, and I assume they’ll still be the same way against us. I think that will be a big key to the game, stopping the run.”
Malzahn noted the Volunteers’ experience up front, as the Tennessee offensive line has featured four former five-star offensive line prospects and a sixth-year four-star center this season. That group was expected to anchor Tennessee, but it hasn’t been able to make up for an offense that has turned the ball over 10 times during the Volunteers’ four-game losing streak.
The one constant for Tennessee has been the rushing attack, which was effective but far from enough to keep the Volunteers in contention in those losses. Tennessee is averaging 3.88 yards per carry in its last three games with Gray being the apparent No. 1 tailback for the team.
Stopping the run will especially be important given Tennessee’s unclear quarterback situation. Senior Jarrett Guarantano’s job appears on the line, as sophomore Brian Maurer and freshman Harrison Bailey all split playing time in the loss to Arkansas.
The unsettled quarterback position looks a lot like what Auburn faced against LSU, which wound up turning to true freshman T.J. Finley with Myles Brennan sidelined due to injury. The message surrounding the unproven quarterback was clear for the Tigers’ defense: force LSU to abandon the run and force Finley to be the difference-maker.
“Stop the run, make them one-dimensional and we could pin our ears back and get after a true freshman quarterback on the road. This is one of the toughest places traditionally to play in college football, so really that was the plan. Simple as that,” Malzahn said after the LSU victory.
“I told our guys, 'We need to rush for 200 yards against these guys, we need to stop the run, make them one-dimensional, get after the rookie quarterback and take some shots.' Really, that was really the game plan in a nutshell.”
Auburn achieved that objective by holding LSU to 1.2 rushing yards per carry. The mission now is to do something similar against Tennessee.
The Volunteers have been trending in the wrong direction this season with their ground game being one of the few saving graces in a season that went downhill quick.
Now, they’ll take on an Auburn defense that had its struggles against the run early but is coming off a game three weeks ago in which everything went right.
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