PREVIEW: Auburn, LSU renew physical rivalry

Gus Malzahn

Gus Malzahn

AUBURN, Ala. — Dana Marquez will have to file for overtime next week.

Marquez, Auburn’s equipment manager, is responsible for cleaning the team’s helmets after every game and getting them prepared for the Tigers’ next contest. Given the physical nature of the Auburn/LSU series, Marquez can start planning to spend more time polishing the lids than normal following today’s tilt in Baton Rouge, La.

And as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows, no helmets will have more scratches to buff out than those playing in the trenches.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “It’s going to be a box game. (There are) going to be some helmets that get kind of messed up.”

Auburn’s first three opponents presented a different test than what its defensive line will face Saturday in its first road game of the season, Johnson said. A pass-happy Washington State attack in the season opener was followed by more balanced offenses in Arkansas State and Mississippi State.

None had the depth in the backfield or the dynamic pass-catchers LSU brings to the table, though.

“Their skill receivers are as good as anybody in the country and they get them isolated out there with all that power football,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a challenge and it’s a total change of complexion from what we’ve been dealing with.”

To slow down LSU, Johnson said it was incumbent upon his linemen to shed blockers and get into the backfield. Otherwise, an offense that has averaged 488 yards — including 571 versus Kent State last week — and 46 points per game will have its way once again.

The good news for Auburn is that its defensive line is finally rounding back into health. All-SEC preseason selection Dee Ford missed Auburn’s first two games due to a knee injury, but returned last week to collect six tackles, tied for fourth-most on the team.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said the senior defensive end was understandably sluggish in the first half but only got better as the game went on.

“I think it’s very important to have an impact player and he’s definitely an impact player,” Malzahn said. “He can put pressure on the quarterback by himself.” Johnson hopes the other members of the youthful defensive line eventually reach Ford’s level of pass-rushing expertise.

But there is still much work to be done before they reach that point.

“Some of our younger guys have the physical ability and have really done some impressive things but they don’t have the knowledge right now and they’re sometimes getting themselves in trouble with inside twists and moves when they’re supposed to be caging,” Johnson said. “But Dee gives us the experience and that edge capability. What we’re settling in on now, we’re trying to get to the point where we really feel like we got the best four guys that rotate in.”

In an attempt to mix things up, Johnson has taken advantage of LaDarius Owens’ versatility. The defensive end — who moved to linebacker during the spring before switching back to the line in fall camp following Ford’s injury — has been used as a standup rusher on intermittent snaps, with the team moving him all over the line of scrimmage.

Owens has been deployed in this manner every week and it will likely do so multiple times Saturday.

“We call it a ‘rover,’” Johnson said. “He moves around to setup different twists and then on certain formation he drops in the middle right in there to take away things. One of the screens they ran a little middle screen, we had him drop in there in the middle and they threw the screen right in front of three linebackers.”

Another player who has the ability to play multiple spots on the line is freshman Elijah Daniel, who has impressed Johnson with his “quick twitch” the second the ball is snapped.

“If we put our very, very best four pass rushers, he’s probably one of the best inside guys,” Johnson said. “He’s physical enough to play one-on-one with the guards we play against but he’s quick enough and fast enough and explosive enough to run the twists and get outside and control the quarterback and other things that out big tackles sometimes struggle with.”

Regardless of which linemen are rotate in and out of the game this Saturday, one thing won’t change: They will have to make sure to buckle their chin straps extra tight every snap.

“(LSU is) a very good team,” Malzahn said. “They’re going to make you earn it. … It’ll be a big challenge.”