- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Whether they’re ready or not, the Auburn Tigers are in for a war on Saturday when they leave home for the first time to face No. 6 LSU.
“It’s going to be some helmets that get kind of messed up,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “[Auburn equipment manager] Dana’s [Marquez] going to have a lot of work on his hands getting all that paint off the helmets, but it’s going to be different. We haven’t played anybody with this type of style this year.”
It’s an LSU team that’s far more physical than any of Auburn’s first three opponents. LSU features a power offense epitomized by running back Jeremy Hill, who is a bruiser in every sense of the word. In LSU’s victory over Kent State, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound back rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries.
But it has been the improved play of quarterback Zach Mettenberger that has taken the LSU offense to the next level. The senior has thrown for 797 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions through the first three games. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he has a total quarterback rating of 91.6, up from 39.3 a season ago.
“Their quarterback has done a good job and protected the ball," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I believe he hasn’t thrown an interception yet, and he has thrown quite a few touchdowns. Any time you can couple that with a good run game -- which they do have a very good run game -- that is a challenge.”
For Auburn to have any shot of slowing down LSU, it has to start up front on the defensive line.
It’s a group that has had its ups and downs, but it's yet to find the right combination. The coaches have experimented with close to a dozen linemen -- veterans and newcomers alike -- and while there have been flashes, the unit has lacked consistency as a whole.
“They have had some injuries and some guys have had to step up, so you know the more consistent we can be with our personnel moving forward, the more consistent those guys will be,” Malzahn said.
In Saturday’s win over Mississippi State, Auburn welcomed back a key member of the defensive line -- senior defensive end Dee Ford, the team’s top pass rusher from a year ago and a leader on the defense. Ford missed the first two games after injuring his knee during fall camp but said it felt good to be back.
“You’re always a little nervous when you haven’t played football, and I haven’t played in about a month,” Ford said. “You just never know, and practice doesn’t really simulate a game. I was just anxious to see how I play, and I think I played well.”
In his return, Ford finished with six tackles and two quarterback hurries. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Auburn because it will need both his talent and his experience when it faces LSU this weekend. Ford gives the defensive coaches a player on whom they can rely up front as they continue to seek continuity on the line.
“Some of our younger guys have the physical ability and have really done some impressive things, but they don’t have the knowledge right now and they’re sometimes getting themselves in trouble,” Johnson said. “But Dee obviously gives us the experience and that edge capability.
“What we’re settling in on now, we’re trying to get to the point where we really feel like we got the best four and a couple of guys that rotate in.”
Regardless of who rotates in against LSU, they better come ready to play. It’s a put-up or shut-up type game for an Auburn defense that still has a lot to prove, beginning with the defensive line.
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf