The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind enemy lines: Auburn

Adam Sparks | Staff Photographer
Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson (55) makes a move on Clemson tackle Mitch Hyatt (75) in the second half. Auburn vs Clemson on Saturday, September 3 in Auburn, AL. Photo credit: Adam Sparks

The Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor Robbie Weinstein and the Auburn Plainsman assistant sports editor Sam Butler discuss the state of the Tigers and Commodores ahead of Saturday’s game.

Robbie Weinstein: Auburn looks like it has arguably the best rushing attack in the entire country right now, but that wasn’t really the case early in the year. Is the advent of Kamryn Pettway as the featured back all that has changed?

Sam Butler: Pettway’s been a huge part, but what’s been an even larger catalyst has been the play of the offensive line, which went through a shakeup a few weeks ago. Starting center Xavier Dampeer went down with an injury, and to remedy the situation coach Gus Malzahn slid left tackle Austin Golson — who was the center last year — into Dampeer’s position and inserted Darius James at left tackle. Since then, Auburn’s rushing attack has been nearly unstoppable. They’ve opened up massive rushing lanes for Pettway and Kerryon Johnson: They’re averaging roughly three yards per rush before encountering contact, which is staggering.

RW: With the way Auburn recruits and with such a star on the defensive line like Carl Lawson, I’d expect the Tigers to be ranked a little bit higher against the run than they are. How good is their run defense, and what might be some weaknesses the defense has in the run game?

SB: Auburn’s ranked 27th in the nation, which is nothing to sneeze at, but those statistics are a bit deceiving. The defense is still very, very good. They’re allowing an average of 126.6 yards per game, but that number’s skewed by two big games by Texas A&M and LSU. A&M rushed for 231 yards, and LSU picked up 220. In the last three games, Auburn’s only allowed 103, 25 and 105 yards to Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss, respectively. So while the numbers aren’t as great as Auburn surely would like them to be, I think it’s more indicative of the team-wide turnaround Auburn’s been undergoing as of late.

RW: Vanderbilt has struggled against mobile quarterbacks, as well as quarterbacks who can complete big plays downfield. How much big-play potential has Sean White showed beyond his ability to function as a game manager?

SB: White’s big-play potential definitely isn’t as notable some other quarterbacks’. His longer passes mostly come off of extended play action, and he’s never really asked to take a five-step drop and chuck it downfield. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are content to do exactly what he’s been doing, as you mentioned: manage the game. His efficiency is up there as one of the best in the nation. And while he’s not a quintessential “dual-threat” quarterback, White can show off his wheels when he needs to.

RW: Obviously, Vanderbilt’s name doesn’t jump off the page when a team like Auburn looks at its schedule, especially since this game is sandwiched around high-profile matchups against Ole Miss and Georgia. How have the Tigers performed in these sort of “trap games” in the past, and do you see this game as one of those?

SB: Sure, Vanderbilt isn’t as marquee a matchup as some of those other games you mentioned, but there’s little to no chance Auburn takes the Commodores lightly. Malzahn and Lashlee recruited Zach Cunningham while they were at Arkansas State, so they’re familiar with how good he is and how underrated Vanderbilt’s defense is. And this Vanderbilt team beat Georgia on the road, which’ll stand out no matter who you are, despite Georgia’s relative down year. The only way I see this being a trap game that the Tigers sleep on is if the 11 a.m. kickoff gets to them. They did have to travel to Starkville for an 11 a.m. game a few weeks ago, however, so it’s not something they haven’t dealt with before.

As far as other trap games, Auburn hasn’t really gotten tripped up in any since Malzahn’s tenure started. Nearly every loss was in a bigger game, but the closest the Tigers have really come to coming out flat-footed was the second game of last season, when Jacksonville State nearly stole a road win when Auburn was ranked No. 6 in the nation, which kind of began the tailspin of 2015.

RW: How do you see this one playing out? Give a score prediction, if you like.

SB: Auburn’s on a roll, to put it simply. Their offense is red-hot, and the defense has been playing extremely well the whole year, the evisceration by Chad Kelly notwithstanding. I think Vanderbilt puts up a worthy fight, but Pettway and Johnson wear down the Commodore defense to pull away by halftime. I’ll say Auburn wins, 35-14.

SB: This is Derek Mason’s third year at Vanderbilt following the James Franklin era, and he’s only been able to provide three conference wins so far. How much longer does he have to turn things around in Nashville?

RW: Vanderbilt’s administration really doesn’t like to fire coaches, and Mason is a great guy who’s well-liked within the athletic department. Losing out would potentially make things interesting in terms of his job status, but he’ll certainly get at least one more year if Vandy can get to a fifth win and the bowl game that would likely come with it. Certainly the results over the past two-plus years haven’t been any good, but athletic director David Williams won’t make a move unless he absolutely has to, no matter how badly fans want Mason out.

SB: Other than the loss to Georgia Tech and the win over Western Kentucky, Vanderbilt’s defense has held offenses to some impressively low scores, especially in the SEC. What’s been the key for the Commodores there?

RW: The defense is good against traditional offenses that don’t push the pace and don’t feature dual-threat quarterbacks. Against up-tempo offenses like WKU’s and an alternative-style offense like Georgia Tech and its triple option, the ‘Dores struggle. The defensive line is good against the run but doesn’t have a lot of depth, and slow-paced SEC offenses like Florida and Georgia haven’t challenged the linemen’s conditioning all that much. Basically, they’ve had success against predictable teams that want to run right at them and don’t feature mobile quarterbacks.

SB: To kind of piggyback off the last question: Even though the defense has held the likes of Florida and Kentucky to low scores, the offense hasn’t been able to put up enough points to take advantage of the help the defense has given them. What’s been the biggest thing holding Vanderbilt back from scoring, especially with Ralph Webb sitting at second in the SEC in rushing?

RW: Supposedly, the passing game was going to be the most improved part of the team this year. That hasn’t happened. Kyle Shurmur is an OK game manager, but he’s completed roughly 10 percent of his throws more than 20 yards downfield this year. The receivers aren’t particularly fast or physically imposing, and none of the tight ends have proven to be effective at both blocking and functioning as targets for Shurmur. The ‘Dores have done a great job at limiting turnovers and are tops in the SEC in that category, but it’s hard to move the ball when your passing game can’t function against SEC defenses.

SB: What does Vanderbilt need to do to slow down Auburn’s rushing attack and give the Commodores a chance to leave with a win?

RW: Star linebacker Zach Cunningham might have to have 20 tackles if Vanderbilt hopes to contain Pettway. A more realistic goal, though, might be to take away Auburn’s passing game. If Vanderbilt can get the Tigers to the point where they’re running the ball 70-80 percent of the time, it might be able to stack the box and limit Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. I think Auburn could probably adjust at halftime and find some weaknesses in the Vanderbilt secondary in the second half in this scenario, though. I definitely don’t see Vanderbilt winning without a touchdown on defense or special teams.

SB: How do you see this one shaking out?

RW: Auburn opened up as 26.5-point favorites, and I think that’s too high. I think there’s a decent chance Vanderbilt keeps this game competitive in the first half, but VU will almost surely get worn down by Auburn’s superior talent. Auburn by a score of 34-13 sounds about right to me.

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