Auburn Tigers quarterback Barrett Trotter (14) gets protection from teammate tight end Brandon Fulse (11) in the second half of the Tigers game last Saturday against Mississippi State as the offense has carried Auburn this season.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Opposing quarterbacks have been models of passing efficiency against Auburn's defense. When they're not running over the 21st-ranked Tigers' defenders, that is.
A defense that starts seven sophomores and has six freshmen inserted as second-teamers ranks 111th nationally in total yards allowed, 118th in run defense and last in the Southeastern Conference in both categories. The Tigers can counter with the most important number, of course: 2-0 after surviving a pair of shootouts.
They have been able to overcome those defensive deficiencies going into Saturday's game at Clemson (2-0), much like they did during last season's national title run.
But that 2010 group was at least strong against the run and could count on Nick Fairley to frequently smash quarterbacks and ballcarriers. Mississippi State had two 100-yard rushers last weekend, including quarterback Chris Relf, and bedeviled Auburn at times with the option.
The Tigers insist they made substantial progress from Week 1 against Utah State.
"We played with more energy and we understood the defense more," defensive end Dee Ford said. "Statistics don't show it because they came out in the option and they did a couple of things that we didn't expect and that of course we didn't adjust to. But we played with way more energy and we understood the defense better and the pace of the game was a lot better."
That progress, he said "is going to continue."
In fairness, the Tigers did stop the option the final time Mississippi State tried it to polish off an end-of-game goal-line stand. They allowed 531 yards in a game when 532 might have gotten them beat.
Coach Gene Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof gave mixed reviews for the defense's play. The Bulldogs had 333 yards combined in the first and last quarter against a team that has been outgained by substantial margins in both wins.
"We played really good in some spurts," Roof said. "We were much improved in some spurts. We had some spurts that were not acceptable. We played more physical than we did a week before against a quality opponent. There were peaks and valleys. We've got to eliminate those valleys and keep working to eliminate some of those mistakes so we can be a much better defense. We've got to get better real quick this week."
The peaks: That goal line tackle of Relf by reserve safety Ryan Smith and stopping running back Vick Ballard behind the line on the previous play. Plus, safety Demetruce McNeal returned an interception for a touchdown.
The valleys: The aforementioned lapses early and late. Relf had 301 yards total offense and Ballard ran for 135 yards.
Plus Auburn's defense is allowing opponents to convert 57 percent of their third down attempts and have allowed the first two quarterbacks they've faced to post a gaudy pass rating of 180.40, complete passes at a 72.3-percent clip and throw for five touchdowns.
The Tigers had the league's stingiest run defense last season, giving up 16 touchdowns on the ground in 14 games. They've already allowed seven rushing scores in two games.
A defensive line with four sophomore starters has also helped lead the way to 16 tackles for loss already.
Clemson right tackle Landon Walker doesn't expect much finesse from Auburn.
"You run into the same kind of defense a lot with these big-time teams," Walker said. "Plus in fall camp we've seen every defense possible. At the same time, we look forward to a defense that just sits still and says just beat us off the ball if you want to win the game. That's something I think we all look forward to.
"There's not many other ways to put it than if you're going to whip us, there's going to be a lot of one-on-one battles. And if we can win those, obviously it's going to be a successful day."