With Auburn’s head coach temporarily filling the vacant defensive coordinator position on his staff, Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor understands the intricacies of the Tigers’ defense may change heading into the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But Lazor and the Cavaliers’ offense are preparing as if Auburn’s defensive identity largely will remain the same.
The talent will remain the same on an Auburn defense that struggled mightily this season, particularly against the run. And so Lazor has used the past few weeks to correct the flaws in his own unit’s rushing attack – one that was stumped in the past two regular season games after performing prodigiously earlier in the fall – and hone in on the defensive inclinations Auburn displayed on film.
“As we first approached the bowl game before [Auburn’s] defensive coordinator left, it gives you a lot of time to study exactly what their tendencies are,” Lazor said Tuesday. “At the same time, it gives them time to study their tendencies. We look at our self-scout and what we’ve done and what we’ve done well and if we feel like we’re tipping anything off, then that gives us an opportunity to change that.
“So when you first go into bowl preparation, there are certain things you’re going to know real well going in, and there are certain other things that you can’t take too much for granted.”
On Dec. 7, Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof departed to take the same position at Central Florida. A day later, Auburn Coach Gene Chizik announced he would assume defensive coordinator duties on an interim basis that likely will extend through the bowl game. Chizik’s coaching background is on the defensive side of the ball, including stints as defensive coordinator at Central Florida (1998-2001), Auburn (2002-04) and Texas (2005-06).
“For me, knowing that there’s going to be a new play caller on game day, I just have to keep in mind, ‘Well, we might know a certain percentage of the time in the games we’ve broken down that they’ve shown the blitz or played man coverage, well that can change,’” Lazor said. “The specifics might change based on the play caller. But the only way to go into a game feeling prepared is to assume that their personality is going to stay the same.
“So maybe the specifics on third and four, this is what they do, that might change. But if you think overall they’re this tendency, this kind of team, I think you have to assume. If they prove it’s different, there’s nothing we could have done about that anyway.”
What Virginia can do something about is shoring up a rushing attack that foundered against the quality defenses of Florida State and Virginia Tech in the final two games of the regular season. After averaging 187.6 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry during the first 10 games, the Cavaliers averaged 54 rushing yards and just less than 2 yards per carry in the final two contests.
Granted, those two games were against Florida State and Virginia Tech, which rank No. 2 and No. 17 in the nation in rushing defense, respectively.
Lazor said he charted out each run in those two games that he didn’t feel was efficient and who’s fault it was. Not surprisingly, Lazor said more than one person often was responsible. He declined to get into specifics about where the mistakes originated and how the Cavaliers have attempted to correct them.
“In those last two games, against the better competition, the blocks weren’t as good as they had been, and the running wasn’t as good as it had been,” said senior offensive guard Austin Pasztor, a second team all-American. “When you play against talented defenses like that, it takes a little extra effort.”
Pasztor noted that especially during the Virginia Tech game – a contest Virginia lost, 38-0 – the Cavaliers trailed significantly in the second half and had to lean on the passing game more than they otherwise might have.
Indeed, Virginia only rushed the ball fewer than 30 times in a game twice this season: Once was against Florida State; the other was against Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers averaged 41.1 carries per game in their other 10 contests.
Pasztor said that based on what he’s seen in film study, the team Virginia already has faced this season that most closely compares to Auburn is Florida State. He noted that Auburn’s interior defensive linemen will “be hard to push out of there” and that the Tigers’ linebackers appear fast and athletic.
Lazor said he has implored the offense to be highly physical during practice to prepare for what it will face Dec. 31.
“I just think that the beginning of the game is going to be physical, so I want to make sure we’re prepared offensively for what it’s going to take,” Lazor said. “When you get the ball in your hand, you need to go north and south. When you play a fast team, if you make an extra cut or you try to cut back, they’re coming.”
Lazor said Auburn’s defensive statistics “help you start to paint a picture,” and that picture, for the most part, is not pleasant. The Tigers have allowed 194.8 rushing yards per game this season, a mark that ranks No. 98 in the nation. They’re giving up 405.8 total yards per game and are allowing opponents to average 29.3 points per game. Both of those numbers are well below the national average.
Auburn gave up three passing touchdowns in the first half of what became a 42-14 loss Nov. 26 against Alabama. Then the Crimson Tide rushed the ball 15 times for 158 yards in the second half.
“I think you’d always like to have that formula, offensively, where you can throw it or do whatever you need to do early, and then run the ball late in the game to finish the game out,” Lazor said. “Everyone’s always happy when that happens.”