AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele doesn’t hide the fact he’s an old-school guy.
So although the 58-year-old Steele was mostly positive about his defense’s performance in a 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson, he called back an older era of football to express his disappointment.
“Nineteen points against that offense, that’s a good number,” Steele said Monday night. “There used to be football games where people won 10-9 and 13-12 and 9-6 and 6-3, I’m old enough to remember those games … Maybe that’s why that’s ingrained in our system. That it doesn’t matter what the other team has. You need to make sure you’ve got one more than they’ve got. It’s not something we’re going to accept.”
While Auburn’s defense had arguably its best performance since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach against Clemson, Steele won’t run out of things he wants to correct.
In addition to the ultimate goal — making sure Auburn has more points than Arkansas State at the final whistle Saturday night — Steele sees another major number that needs fixing.
“I guess if you just looked at the game and said, ‘OK, what would you do different if you could do it different, and what would you take out,’ [it would] obviously be the third-down pass interference penalties, which kept the ball moving,” Steele said. “We’ve got to eliminate third-down penalties. We were 65 percent successful on third down. Our goal is 70 percent, so we didn’t make that.”
Steele is referring to a pair of second-quarter flags that extended Clemson drives that turned into a combined 10 points. Nickel back Rudy Ford was called for holding in the end zone, and Clemson scored a touchdown four plays later. Cornerback Javaris Davis’ pass interference call later in the quarter erased a potential three-and-out, and the visitors tacked on a field goal on that drive.
Still, Clemson’s 35 percent conversion rate on third downs was almost 10 whole points better than Auburn’s average from 2015, which ranked 110th nationally.
Auburn also didn’t record a single coverage bust Saturday night, which has been a rarity since the Tommy Tuberville days. The Tigers, however, struggled with back-shoulder throws from Heisman contender Deshaun Watson to the returning Mike Williams, who was responsible for 174 of Clemson’s 248 receiving yards.
“There were four that hit, and he stuck it right on the back side shoulder, I mean dead on it every time,” Steele said. “We had relatively tight coverage on every one of them, but having said that, probably [if we] had to do it over, we’d be a little bit more sensitive. We could have played split safety coverage or two-high, and that’s not there … So we’ll get that corrected and move forward.”
Moving forward this week means moving ahead to Arkansas State, a normally potent “Group of Five” offense that only put up 10 points in a lopsided home loss to Toledo in Week 1. Steele cited the Red Wolves’ speed on the edge and five returning starters on the offensive line as areas of emphasis in his film review.
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Fortunately for Steele, the first-year assistant has a strong performance to build on heading into the second weekend of the season — the one that is often referred to as the week where the most improvement happens for a team.
“We’re going to work very, very hard to build on the positives of the game,” Steele said. “There were some very good positive things on there. [Auburn allowing] 3.4 yards per rush against an offense that has been very prolific at running the ball very well for an extended period of time with basically the same group of guys was effective.”
And that message has already stuck with members of Auburn’s defense. The performance against a national title contender was top-notch, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“We cannot be complacent. We cannot be happy with anything,” linebacker Tre’ Williams said. “Even though we did play better well, we’ve still got a lot of stuff to build on … We still have a lot of corrections. It’s just good to see we’ve really built our foundation, and we’re starting to bring Auburn back again.”
Justin Ferguson is the Auburn beat writer for the AJC’s SEC Country. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.