Auburn's struggling defense now faces Gurley
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Auburn's defense has been struggling against quarterbacks ranging from a Heisman Trophy contender to a freshman making his first road start.
Now, the ninth-ranked Tigers face a different but equally formidable challenge: Trying to contain No. 16 Georgia's star tailback Todd Gurley on Saturday night upon his return from a four-game suspension for accepting money for autographs.
''Nobody's stopped him and some of them slowed him down a little bit,'' Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. ''The only guy that stopped him was the autograph guy.''
Jokes aside, the Tigers' defensive problems became serious over the past month. Auburn's secondary was picked apart by Texas A&M freshman Kyle Allen in the first half of a 41-38 defeat, and Auburn fared even worse against Mississippi State star Dak Prescott.
Gurley and the Bulldogs represent just the latest challenge.
Auburn opponents have been averaging 487 yards and 36 points over the last four games, including losses to the Aggies and Mississippi State.
It's especially disturbing for a defense that appeared to have improved dramatically over last season before starting a downward slide, particularly against the pass.
Auburn fans barely got a chance to rattle Allen before he threw a 60-yard touchdown pass four plays into the game and a 36-yarder less than a minute later after a turnover.
The Tigers did hold Texas A&M to two field goals in the second half.
''Getting off to the start, that's been the thing that we've got to fix,'' Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. ''Once we get into the game, especially the second half, our guys are playing better and they're settling down and all that.
''We've got to get off to a better start defensively earlier in the game.''
Auburn did get a boost from the return of safety Jermaine Whitehead against the Aggies. He worked his way back onto the defense for the first time since returning from a suspension after starting out just playing on special teams.
Whitehead had an interception to help out a secondary that has given up 12 touchdown passes and an average of 320 yards passing during that four-game stretch.
The Tigers have been better against the run with a front line that still lacks a consistent pass rusher. Defensive end Carl Lawson, who was expected to fill that role, has been sidelined all season by a knee injury sustained in the spring.
Gurley was averaging 154.6 yards on the ground over the first five games, and freshman Nick Chubb put up big numbers in his absence.
They presents a different kind of task for a defense that has been so porous against the pass.
Prescott is the only player to rush for 100 yards against the Tigers this season.
But they still have to correct issues ranging from missed tackles to poor communication and busted assignments.
Auburn made it to the national championship game last season with a defense ranked 86th in total yards allowed, while coming up with some big defensive stands.
''I would say we have to do a better job of reacting sometimes,'' defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. ''That's the thing, when you play in the SEC, you're going to play against great coaches and these coaches bring in great talent.
''I really believe it is a game of adjustments. We of course have to do a better job of starting off better. I always felt like since last year when the new coaching staff came in, we've always been good on third downs and in the fourth quarter. That's something we really have to get back to and stressing.''