AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has a new attitude, a new role and a new energy heading into Week 5. Now it’s time for his players to follow suit and keep that momentum rolling.
The Tigers (2-2, 1-1 SEC) have a picture-perfect opportunity to get over .500 for the first time this season against Louisiana-Monroe (1-2, 0-1 Sun Belt) on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alternate).
Their opponent is three games into its time under a new head coach, Matt Viator, and had back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and conference foe Georgia Southern. Auburn is expected to win by a comfortable margin, and the focus on the Plains this week is correcting the nagging mistakes on both sides of the ball before traveling to cowbell-ringing Starkville for a road game against Mississippi State.
Here are the 5 Key Things to watch for Auburn in the final matchup of its five-game home stand to start the 2016 season.
1. Get the ball into the end zone
Malzahn called it Auburn’s top priority in practice this week, and with good reason. The Tigers entered the red zone six times against LSU and only came up with 5 field goals. With the way Auburn’s defense was playing, if half of those trips were turned into touchdowns, Auburn would have beaten LSU by three scores.
“I think it’s an overall evaluation of the scheme, what fits our players, the play-calling, the all of the above,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “That’s what we’re doing. That’s the No. 1 thing from our offensive standpoint that we need to solve. We’re going to focus on that like crazy.”
It’s now up to Rhett Lashlee to find the magic formula in the red zone. The Tigers had 4 touchdowns on 8 red-zone trips in their last matchup with a Sun Belt opponent back in Week 2, but they want more. Malzahn said Auburn will do “some different things” in the red zone moving forward, and that starts Saturday against ULM.
2. Find that groove on the ground again
Auburn’s rushing attack hit a bit of a wall against LSU. After two big performances on the ground against Arkansas State and Texas A&M, the Tigers averaged just 3.14 yards per carry in Week 4. Part of that was due to some bumps and bruises for Kamryn Pettway, but it also had a lot to do with the lack of run-blocking push up front.
When Auburn played Arkansas State, it put up a nearly record-breaking performance on the ground with 462 yards. Louisiana-Monroe could be worse in run defense than the winless Red Wolves — the Warhawks are 118th nationally in that area, with opponents averaging 5.35 yards per carry against them.
Before Auburn heads on the road to take on a stouter Mississippi State defense, it needs to get that magic back in the ground game. It’s the true heart of this offense, no matter who is calling the plays.
3. Stay strong on third downs
Auburn has one of the best third-down defenses in the country and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele plans on keeping it that way. With a matchup against a lesser opponent on tap, he doesn’t want his defense to lose focus on those key “money downs.”
“We really have kind of built an identity that we really need to keep going on the third downs,” Steele said Sunday. “We were at 70 percent (against LSU), I think that now puts us right at 27 for the year, which is very positive. But it’s going to be a challenge to keep it at that rate.”
Against Arkansas State, Auburn allowed 5 third-down conversions on 16 attempts. Those numbers improved over the next two weeks in SEC West contests against Texas A&M and LSU. The Tigers would love to keep that momentum going and get the defense off the field as quickly as possible on Saturday.
4. Bring the kids along
The best-case scenario for Auburn in this matchup against Louisiana-Monroe would be for it to jump out to a big lead before halftime and get the starters some rest before its first road trip of the season. That will help the first-team out tremendously, and it would also be an even bigger bonus for the young players Auburn will want to rely on for depth deeper in the season.
Look for running backs Kam Martin and Malik Miller to get some touches like they did against Arkansas State. More reps should also be in store for Auburn’s trio of true freshman wide receivers — Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers and Eli Stove.
All across the depth chart, the Tigers want to bring along more young players who can help in the heart of the SEC slate. But they’ll want to bring them in on their own terms, which brings us to our final key thing for this week.
5. Keep it injury-free
Through the first third of the regular season, Auburn has been fortunate in terms of health. It’s only had one major injury, which was announced Tuesday — reserve defensive end Paul James III is likely to miss the remainder of 2016 with a knee injury he suffered at a practice last week.
“It was kind of a freak drill,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “He was really doing a good job and improving. But it looks like he’ll be out for the rest of the season.”
Against an overmatched opponent like a Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn’s goal will be to get out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a comfortable win and without any injuries. This depth chart is still thin at several key areas, and the last thing that anyone on the team wants to see is an injury in a homecoming game.