No. 6 LSU gives Auburn measuring stick for improvement
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Auburn is getting big plays from the quarterback, the defense has been more resilient, and the Tigers are closing games much stronger.
The most substantive evidence of Auburn's apparent improvement lies in the record, though. The Tigers (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) have already matched last year's win total and done something the 2012 team couldn't: Beaten a league opponent.
"It's a huge confidence-booster," linebacker Jake Holland said on Tuesday. "Last year we didn't win any SEC games and we're 1-0 now, so it's already better than last year. And we're only moving up and getting better every week."
Proving it gets much tougher this week. The Tigers hit the road for the first time to visit No. 6 LSU (3-0, 0-0) in a game that will likely either supply another example of Auburn's strides or demonstrate how far the team still has to go.
With Nick Marshall's 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah in the final seconds, Auburn ended a 10-game SEC skid in Saturday night's 24-20 victory over Mississippi State.
It was another sign of progress for a team that might have wilted in a similar situation last season amid significant struggles at quarterback. The win gave Auburn its first 3-0 start since winning the national title in 2010.
"That's when you really find out, at decision moments that could go either way," coach Gus Malzahn said. "You find out more about your team than you do winning by three touchdowns. I thought it was really good to be able to win a game like that. That'll give you confidence moving forward. Football, there's a lot of mental things that go on with winning, expecting to win, knowing how to win. I think that'll help us moving forward. Matter of fact, I know it will help us moving forward if we have situations like that.
"Our guys will believe they can win."
Malzahn's first Auburn team has definitely had some bright spots going into a tougher portion of the schedule that starts with LSU then No. 21 Mississippi after an open date.
Auburn has outscored opponents 20-0 in the fourth quarter this season after getting doubled up by opponents last season over the final 15 minutes of games. The defense had key stops late against both Washington State and the Bulldogs, the latter setting up the winning drive.
Malzahn and Holland both said the improvement so far starts with being a better-conditioned team.
"Late in the game I can definitely notice a difference from the past couple of years that we're just a lot fresher," Holland said. "We're able to run to the ball and gang-tackle. More guys are getting to the ball, so we're able to make better plays."
The offense is one of six teams nationally and the only one in the SEC to be perfect scoring inside the opponents' 20-yard line. The Tigers are 10 for 10, but Cody Parkey has made 7 of 8 field goals.
Marshall was 6-of-8 passing on that game-winning 88-yard drive and ran for a first down. His 339 passing yards was the most by an Auburn quarterback in his SEC debut.
Auburn is fourth in the SEC in scoring defense despite being eight spots lower in yards allowed.
"It's really been kind of weird," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "Mark Twain said: 'There's lies, damn lies and statistics.' And I'm starting to think that way because we're sitting up there in the top 3-4 in scoring defense, but we're way at the bottom in total defense.
"And it goes back to those trash plays, we're making some really dumb mistakes. But our guys are really playing well under some pressure situations. Credit coach Malzahn, I think he's put a confidence and an attitude in these guys. They're determined they're going to play through adversity and finish ball games. It's something they've had a problem doing."
Follow John Zenor on Twitter: Twitter.com/jzenor