AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — No. 10 Auburn has honed its survival skills with a series of high-stress finishes.
Of course, the Tigers might not find themselves in such harrowing positions if they didn’t keep digging early holes. The past two weeks, Auburn has spotted Clemson 17 points and South Carolina 13 in the first half, then come back.
"We still haven’t put together a game that we can really be proud of from top to bottom," coach Gene Chizik said Tuesday. "We’ve put together some quarters that looked like the way Auburn football ought to look.
"We’re trying to strive for a top-to-bottom, four-quarter game but we haven’t arrived there yet."
Luckily for the Tigers (4-0), those slow starts haven’t cost them a game yet. But they’ve raised plenty of questions, such as how can a team be so utterly dominant during some stretches of the second half and so hapless and ineffective for much of the first?
Chizik & Co. are still seeking answers going into Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe (1-2). It hasn’t kept them from rising 12 spots in the Top 25 since the season started, or seven spots with a 35-27 win over No. 19 South Carolina.
But eventually living dangerously could catch up with the Tigers. A road trip to Kentucky followed by games against No. 15 Arkansas and No. 12 LSU follow the Louisiana-Monroe game.
Either it’s the offense. The Tigers struggled to even get a first down early against Clemson, falling behind 17-0. A 21-point third-quarter surge erased that deficit en route to an overtime win.
Or the defense. South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia racked up 158 yards passing in the first half to build a 20-7 lead. The Tigers wiped that out by forcing four turnovers in the final quarter.
"We’ve made some good halftime adjustments and kind of adjusted some things," Chizik said. "But we haven’t played well, or at least nearly as well as we’d like to play, in the first half of ball games as a team."
Auburn also used a fourth-quarter defensive stand to survive 17-14 at Mississippi State to start the string of close games.
It’s not a terrible problem for the Tigers to have after they failed to finish off several close games last season.
"It’s very important to finish strong," defensive tackle Mike Blanc said. "Coach Chizik brought up a lot of examples from last year where we had games won, but we just lost it in the fourth quarter. This year, that’s something we definitely wanted to capitalize on.
"When the fourth quarter’s coming around, we want to make sure we’re doing the right things. It’s just the little things at the end of the game where people win or they lose."
Having a little more defensive depth, especially on the front line, helps. Auburn has managed to batter quarterbacks the past two weeks. Garcia was yanked from the game after losing two fumbles in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers then intercepted freshman backup Connor Shaw twice to end scoring threats.
"I think it’s good the way that we’ve had to be on the field at the end of the last three ballgames, where it’s come down to the last play," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "And I think there’s a lot of value in that, when it keeps happening to us, to build some confidence that we can shut the door and end the football game."
Chizik also likes what he sees from his players on the sidelines while facing those early deficits.
"You don’t see the panic. You don’t see the body language change," he said. "And of course that’s something that we preach to them every day for the week and a half or whatever that we’ve been here. But in the locker room at halftime, they know we’ve got to come in, we’ve go to make some adjustments.
"Is it much different than last year? I don’t know if I can say that. I just know that we were willing to fight and don’t look at the scoreboard and keep playing to the end of the game."