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Tigers take charge up front

AUBURN – Auburn’s offensive linemen were gathered in their meeting room when an unexpected guest walked through the door. It was Gene Chizik, the head coach who four weeks earlier had called them out for not being physical enough.

Senior offensive guard Byron Isom/ photo

This time, Chizik’s message was different. He told them they had answered his call.

“First of all, that’s a pretty big compliment,” senior left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “Coach Chizik doesn ‘t toss around compliments very often. Very rarely. For him to come in our meeting room and spend five minutes and tell us how good a job we’re doing meant the world to me and to the rest of the guys.”

That was on Tuesday of last week. They showed their appreciation by paving the way for a startling 440 yards rushing in a 24-17 victory over LSU last Saturday at Jordan-Stadium. It was the fourth consecutive Southeastern Conference game in which Auburn has rushed for more than 300 yards. The offensive linemen have cleared the way for quarterback Cam Newton to break the SEC single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback and become the Heisman Trophy favorite.

When it was over, the Tigers were 8-0 overall, 5-0 in the SEC and No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings that determine who plays for the national championship. They’ll put all that on the line Saturday against Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Kickoff time is set for 5 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN2.

If the wins are to keep coming, Chizik said, the offensive line has to keep on mauling opposing defenses.

“I went in there and told them, ‘For us to win, you have to continue to improve,’” Chizik said. “You’re much better than you were a month ago, but you’re what makes it go.’ I made that very clear to them in their meeting room that that’s what we have to have.”

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn says the offensive line’s dominance has increased his options over the course of the season.

“They are doing a very good job moving people off the ball and executing,” Malzahn said. “The running backs are running hard and the quarterback is extremely tough to tackle. Right now, we have a lot of options in the run game.”

Those options are paying off in a big way. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing offense with 303.2 yards per game, 84 yards ahead of second-place Mississippi State. They lead in scoring offense at 38.6 points per game and in total offense at 486.8 yards per game.

Four seniors – Ziemba, guard Byron Isom, center Ryan Pugh and guard Mike Berry – and junior Brandon Mosley have lead the way. Thought they have played almost every meaningful snap, Malzahn says they are not alone.

“We feel like we have some depth,” Malzahn said. “John Sullen is a play away from playing. Bart Eddins, we feel good about him, too. Those would be the next two guys in.”

Isom says the offensive line wants still more.

“It’s become very contagious,” Isom said. “You set landmarks, and once you reach one, you don’t ever want to fall back.”



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