Auburn coach Gene Chizik and his players are concerned after an 0-2 start -- the first for the program since 2003 -- following losses to Clemson and Mississippi State to open the season.
WHO: Louisiana-Monroe (1-0) at Auburn (0-2)
WHAT: Auburn’s 2012 home opener.
WHEN: 12:21 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC Network.
LINE: Tigers by 16 1/2.
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said warning signs that the Tigers might be in trouble started to develop with the team in preseason camp, when coaches had to turn into cheerleaders to drum up energy in practice.
“If you look at the first couple days of camp, we had all the energy in the world,” Bell said Tuesday. “Come out in Week 1 and 2 and Coach has to get on us or start a period over because we come out flat and don’t have any energy, so it’s kind of odd to see. But we definitely got to get it fixed. We got to get it fixed fast.”
The Tigers are floundering after an ugly loss at Mississippi State when there were deficiencies all over the field, from quarterback Kiehl Frazier to poor tackling and pass coverage. As a result, Auburn is 0-2 for the first time since 2003 and only the second since 1984. Now they’re preparing for a Louisiana-Monroe team coming in Saturday off an upset of then-No. 8 Arkansas and suddenly looking dangerous, especially against a team looking awfully vulnerable.
Bell said neither unity nor coaching are the problems for a team with new offensive and defensive coordinators.
“I think the problem is the lack of execution on the field from us players,” he said.
It has come on both sides of the ball. The Tigers rank 108th in total offense and 109th in total defense, getting outgained by an average of 163 yards through the first two games against Clemson and the Bulldogs.
Two years from a national championship, the team’s poor start and tough schedule make even a bowl game far from a certainty. Auburn still must face Arkansas and three Top 10 teams — No. 3 LSU, Arkansas, No. 7 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama.
Coach Gene Chizik is defiant when asked about the team’s morale.
“It’s real simple: This is a man’s game,” Chizik said. “It reveals everything about who you are. You know what? We’re manning up.
“It starts with me. We understand that we’re very deficient and we’ve got to get better. We’re not going to walk around right now and let our circumstances (have) us holding our head down and saying, ‘Woe is me.’ That’s not how you do it in life, so that’s not how we’re going to do it here. That’s exactly what I told the team: It’s going to reveal who you are.
“There’s no hole to crawl into. You either improve or you don’t improve.”
Frazier struggled badly in his second career start, throwing three interceptions and losing two fumbles against Mississippi State. Tailbacks Tre Mason, Mike Blakely and Onterio McCalebb never got going.
The defense gave up 222 passing yards and three touchdowns to Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell. Clemson’s Andre Ellington powered to 231 rushing yards, many after breaking tackles.
The secondary has been particularly unsettled. Defensive backs Ryan White and Ryan Smith started against Clemson and didn’t play at Mississippi State.
Demetruce McNeal replaced Smith at free safety and made a splash. He had no tackles in the opener and 18 in Game 2.
Poor tackling has been a major issue in both games.
“I’m not going to say the effort is poor, but I’m not going to say we’re giving championship effort right now,” said Bell, who replaced White. “As far as the tackling goes, you have to want to tackle. You have to practice tackling. You can’t just go out there Saturday and say ‘OK, I’m going to tackle now.’ It’s something you’ve got to work and work and work. And, obviously, we’ve got to do more tackling. We’ve got to have a greater desire as a defense to tackle.”
McNeal said coordinator Brian VanGorder, formerly with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, is having to be patient.
“He knows that we’re still a young defense that when he came in didn’t know that much football,” the safety said. “From him coming from the NFL, that was a big transition for him. He comes in the room knowing that a defense that struggled a lot last year, we won’t go from the bottom of the SEC straight to the top this year. It’s just a slow process. “
Despite the struggles, Auburn remains a 16½-point favorite over Louisiana-Monroe.
“We need a win real bad,” receiver Quan Bray said. “There’s no better feeling than getting that win. We’ll just see when that happens.”