AUBURN --- The fumbling is unacceptable.
The slow starts just make matters worse.
Auburn is honing in on the running game this week as the team prepares for Saturday’s game against Kent State, after what Gus Malzahn has called too many fumbles by his running backs in the Tigers’ 2-0 start, and after two games that saw his team struggle in the running game until the second half of both matchups.
Auburn’s been in two uphill battles in trying to get that running game going, in a comeback win over Oregon and in a win over Tulane that wasn’t broken open until the third quarter.
Each time, the Tigers adjusted — and each time, they picked up the win.
But the SEC season is just nine days away, and the Tigers want their ground attack better by then.
“I think we’re capable of being a good running team,” Malzahn said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we are.
“And we’ll get better.”
Auburn redshirt sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow is the SEC’s third-leading rusher, having rolled up 206 yards in two games. He’s on pace to charge to 1,000 yards and give Auburn a rusher reaching that category for the first time since a streak of nine straight seasons with a 1,000-plus-yard rusher was broken in 2018.
But he put the ball on the ground three times against Tulane. Auburn lost two of those fumbles.
So ball security was the first thing Auburn’s coaches focused on after studying film and watching that game back on Sunday, Malzahn said.
“That was really where it started in our meeting Sunday — that we’re not going to be irresponsible with the football at any position,” Malzahn said. “So, there’s a whole lot of ball security attention drills, focus, and we expect to be better.”
Auburn kicks off against Kent State at 6 p.m. on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In the early going, Auburn will surely look to kick-start that rushing attack.
The blame for the first-half struggles doesn’t lie solely on Whitlow by any means.
Auburn rushed for only 70 yards in the first half of the season opener against Oregon, with 30 of those rushing yards coming from quarterback Bo Nix.
Against Tulane, the Tigers rushed for just 20 yards on 13 carries in the first half.
That’s on not just the running backs, but the offensive line — and, yes, the coaches, too.
“The evaluation is, the first half, we’ve struggled a little bit,” Malzahn said, reviewing the running game. “Second half, we’ve played really good football.
“And some of that’s on me, now, too,” he said openly. “We’ve got to do a better job as far as everything goes in the first half — as far as everything goes running-game wise.”
Auburn made a shift in scheme in both games, adjusting to how the defenses were playing the Tigers.
Against Oregon, Auburn came out of the halftime break bent on establishing the run in the Tigers’ comeback bid, rolling up 14 of the team’s 43 carries in the game in the third quarter alone, and tallying 83 of the team’s total 206 rushing yards then.
Against Tulane, Auburn answered that 20-yard first half in the third quarter, with Whitlow carrying the load with eight rushes on an 11-play scoring drive late in the third that put the game out of reach for Tulane at 21-6.
Malzahn mentioned that Oregon and Tulane both showed Auburn different looks from what the Tigers prepared for on film. Oregon was playing its first game under a new defensive coordinator, Andy Avalos.
“As the season goes on, it’s usually a little bit more easy to predict what you’re going to get,” he said. “So that has something to do with it, too.”
Either way, that’s no excuse he’s making.
As he said, Auburn has to get better in the ground game.
That starts this Saturday against Kent State.