AUBURN, Ala. — As Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said last weekend, the Tigers’ current bye week is an important time for evaluation heading into the final month of the football season.
This week, SEC Country will do the same for Auburn, breaking down the first eight games of the season in four categories: passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense and rushing defense. What do the numbers say about Auburn heading into a crucial November?
Auburn’s run defense is on an elite pace once again this season. The Tigers have improved in plenty of categories in the second year under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. With new playmakers generating more stops near the line of scrimmage, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. Of the four units profiled this week, Auburn’s run defense has had the best season so far.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Auburn’s passing stats from the first eight games of 2017 and the entire 2016 season, along with individual stat breakdowns for the quarterbacks and receivers. After that, it’s time to jump into four major positives and two major negatives for this area of Auburn’s season so far.
2017 Auburn football team run defense stats
|CATEGORY||2017 (FBS/SEC RANK)||2016 (FBS RANK)|
|Yards/attempt||3.24 (18th/3rd)||3.74 (25th)|
|Yards/game||124.38 (28th/4th)||132.77 (27th)|
|TD||5 in 8 games (14th/4th)||8 in 13 games (4th)|
|TFL/game||7.00 (34th/3rd)||6.39 (42nd)|
|Rushing S&P+*||150.9 (5th)||120.6 (14th)|
|Rushing success rate*||31.6% (6th)||37.8% (24th)|
|Adj. line yards*||140 (5th)||114.9 (19th)|
|Stuff rate*||21.3% (47th)||22.3% (27th)|
|20+ yard rushes||19 (13th/3rd)||30 (22nd)|
|30+ yard rushes||13 (5th/1st)||17 (14th)|
|40+ yard rushes||8 (5th/1st)||11 (11th)|
*Advanced stats courtesy of Football Study Hall
Rushing defense positives
Across-the-board improvement: Much as the case was for Auburn’s passing defense, a second year in Kevin Steele’s system has done wonders for the Tigers. Auburn has allowed half a yard less on average rushing attempts this season, and it’s posted top-6 national marks in several advanced rushing defense statistics. Auburn also has done a better job of bottling up big run plays, as it’s allowed the fewest of 30 yards or more in the SEC.
No bad games: At this point last season, Auburn had allowed 200-plus rushing yards in games against Texas A&M and LSU. It did the same late in the season against Alabama and Oklahoma. But, to this point, the Tigers haven’t had a bad game yet against the run. Mississippi State had 194 rushing yards in a 49-10 loss. Auburn kept half of its first eight opponents to under 4 yards per carry. This improved defense is filling the right gaps and playing much more comfortably in Year 2.
Forced fumbles: Auburn has forced 10 fumbles this season, which ranks 12th nationally and is two more than it had all of last season. While the pass defense hasn’t created as many interceptions in 2017, the Tigers are making up for it with fumbles. Jeff Holland has forced 4 fumbles on his own this fall. Those are the types of momentum-changing plays Auburn will need to knock off the likes of Georgia and Alabama.
Stephen Roberts: Perhaps the biggest difference in the run defense from last season to this season is the emergence of Stephen Roberts as a play-stopping missile at strong safety. Even before Tray Matthews went down with injury issues, Roberts played more strong safety and loaded up on tackles for loss. Roberts has 6 tackles for loss — no sacks — in eight games, which was as many as any Auburn defensive back had for the entire year in 2016. He makes a huge difference when teams try to go side-to-side on Auburn.
Rushing defense problems
Fewer non-sack TFLs: Auburn averaged a little more than 4 non-sack tackles for loss last season. While the Tigers are generating more big plays behind the line of scrimmage in terms of sacks, the stopped runs in the backfield are slightly lower at this point in the season. It’s a nit-picky top problem to have, as Auburn has posted improved numbers across the board in terms of run defense. But the Tigers would like to get in the backfield more on running plays as they hit November.
Possible nagging injuries: Toward the end of Auburn’s eight straight games to start the season, the injury count rose on the defensive side of the ball. Three linebackers picked up minor injuries, along with sophomore star defensive linemen Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown. Matthews, an efficient run stopper at safety, also went down with a hamstring injury. Auburn will need to avoid a repeat of those problems down the stretch, especially against elite teams such as Georgia and Alabama.