AUBURN, Ala. — After four fruitless weeks searching for it, Sean White said Auburn’s offense finally found its familiar edge in the red zone in its 58-3 win over Louisiana-Monroe.
“Our coaches have been talking about having that killer instinct,” White said. “You get in the red zone, you’ve got to make the play and get in the end zone. It’s different once it gets inside the red zone. I think our team and our offense took that and ran with it.”
Now, it’s a matter of if White and the rest of the Tigers will pack that killer instinct in their bags for next week’s road trip to Starkville.
Auburn opened October by doing something it rarely did in September — turning trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line into touchdowns. The early season frustrations reached a breaking point last week against LSU, when the Tigers won a game with nothing but field goals.
But against Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn scored four touchdowns on five red-zone visits. The only one it didn’t score 6 points on came on the final drive of the game, when the Tigers tried to get senior walk-on running back Damian Lewis a touchdown with less than a minute remaining.
“We have been focusing on it, and that is going to be an emphasis moving forward,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We have to keep carrying that over and score touchdowns down there.”
All four of Auburn’s red zone touchdowns came on the ground — a pair from running back Kerryon Johnson, one from White and another from true freshman running back Malik Miller.
While the Tigers have placed more emphasis on throwing the ball downfield with White as their starter, they were committed to finding their way into the end zone with running plays.
“Primarily, it’s about running the ball down there,” Malzahn said. “If you are going to be a good red zone team, you have to be able to run the football in, and today we were able to do that. We just have to keep working and keep building on that.”
The success Saturday came against a Louisiana-Monroe defense that ranks among the worst nationally in stopping the run. Scoring against the rebuilding Warhawks was expected.
The solution to Auburn's red zone problems is simple, just join the Sun Belt
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) October 1, 2016
But Auburn said the better red zone performance had a lot to do with better execution.
“We knew we could get there; we’ve been getting there the whole season,” Johnson said. “But we knew we had to execute. We knew we had to make the right read, and I think we did that today.”
Senior wide receiver Tony Stevens, who set a career high in yardage Saturday, said he saw better play up front from a new-look offensive line.
Junior Darius James made his first start at left tackle as Austin Golson moved back to his old position at center to cover for the injured Xavier Dampeer. That shuffle didn’t result in any problems, though, against the Warhawks.
“The O-line, I think they did a pretty good job up front, moving the guys out of the way so the running back can get through,” Stevens said.
Now, the pressure is on Auburn’s offense to make sure the four touchdowns in four red zone trips for the first-teamers weren’t just a product of lesser competition. The ultimate answer to the questions of red zone production will come next Saturday in cowbell-clanging Davis Wade Stadium, where Mississippi State will host Auburn in its first road game of the season.
But for at least one evening, the offense can relax and know it got the job done after the extra work on red zone play during practices.
“Scoring in the red zone takes a lot of stress off of us,” Stevens said. “Everybody was having fun out there, really that’s all it’s about, just out there having fun. That’s all we wanted to come out there and do, just go out there and put up points.”