Yes, Cassanova McKinzy had a game-high 10 tackles in Auburn’s 55-23 victory. And yes, the trio of Kris Frost, Jake Holland and Anthony Swain added eight more.
What didn’t show in the stat sheet, Johnson said, was how many other tackles they could have added to their total. He ticked off the number of missed opportunities: three whiffs by Frost, two by Holland and one by Swain.
Simply, Johnson didn’t think they played all that well.
“I thought it was all very up and down and inconsistent,” said Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator. “When you totaled up the production, it made a lot of tackles but I thought we left a lot of plays on the field that we could have made.”
Even McKinzy’s double-digit total left something to be desired.
“(There were) a couple of different formations that confused him a little bit,” Johnson said. “I thought he was a little bit inconsistent on his base run fits, but he really made a lot of plays.”
The critique from Johnson is far from the only criticism surrounding the unit. The linebackers have been a lightning rod for fans all season. Auburn supporters haven't been afraid to let Gus Malzahn know it, either, as the head coach has fielded questions from irritated fans during his weekly call-in radio program.
While aware of fans’ frustrations, Frost said neither he nor any of the other linebackers pay any attention to it.
“It's really all about what our coaches say, and that's what really matters. We just take it to heart because we want to do really well,” he said. “It just pushes us to work even harder. We've been working very hard all season, and we've come up and made big plays when it was time to make big plays, but now we need to know that we have to play really sound defense to finish out the season the way we want to finish it.”
In that area at least, Frost acknowledged it’s been a bit harder to drown out all the noise.
Knowing the possibilities that are in front of the Tigers should they win out can be difficult to ignore.
“When you have fans that are constantly talking about it and stuff, it can kind of creep in,” Frost said. “But our coaches have done such a good job of reminding us of what's really important, reminding us of the task at hand and what we have to accomplish — that (makes) it easy for us. They really show us what's important.”
LASHLEE LAUDS MARSHALL: Rhett Lashlee couldn’t contain his excitement with Saturday’s victory — especially when his unit had some of the pressure taken off it thanks to other areas of the Tigers stepping up.
“Anytime (special teams) Coach (Scott) Fountain wants to score to touchdowns, I’m all in,” said Lashlee, Auburn's offensive coordinator. “Our special teams were great all day. That really helped us offensively. Not just scoring two touchdowns, but they set us up with really good field position several times. I was proud of our guys, the way they were able to finish off those good opportunities.”
Of course, Auburn’s offense didn’t do a bad job when it had to score on its own. The Tigers had four scoring drives that lasted two minutes or less. Four also marks the number of times the Tigers have run for more than 400 yards this season. The majority of that came from quarterback Nick Marshall, who carried 14 times for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
Lashlee wasn’t sure why Marshall had a career-best showing last week. Then again, he saw no reason to question it, as Lashlee noted the junior signal-caller is getting a better feel for the playbook and the things the coaching staff demands with each passing week.
“He got a few more opportunities to keep the ball,” Lashlee said. “I don’t know if it’s because of the way Tre (Mason) has played the last few weeks or not. For whatever reason, he had a good feel on some of them. They were overplaying Tre a little bit and he was keeping the ball. What he did really well was, when it was there, he showed a good burst on a couple of those runs.”
And when Marshall gets out in the open field?
At that point, Lashlee said it’s just about game over for any defense.
“A lot of times there was a free hitter, a free safety or an outside back, and he made them miss or outran them,” he said. “We feel like if you can get Nick one-on-one with someone out in space, we’re going to win more of those battles than we lose.”