Braden Smith called it a “baby step.” But it felt much bigger than that.
The junior guard and the rest of Auburn’s offensive linemen came into Saturday’s game in desperate need of a win — not only on the scoreboard, but in the trenches.
In a Week 1 loss to Clemson, the unit of Smith, Austin Golson, Alex Kozan, Xavier Dampeer and Robert Leff gave up two sacks, four quarterback hurries and 13 tackles for loss.
In the Tigers’ 51-14 rout of Arkansas State, that group rebounded to allow just one sack, three hurries and five tackles for loss.
“I think the overall goal for the offensive line this week was just to play more physical,” Smith said. “I think we accomplished that goal.”
And it wasn’t just about what they prevented on Saturday; it was what they paved the way for. Against Clemson, Auburn averaged only 2.1 yards per carry, netting just 87 on 41 totes.
Against the Red Wolves, the Tigers knifed through the defense to the tune of 7.5 yards per carry, needing only 62 touches to net 462 yards.
Kamryn Pettway rushed 15 times for 152 yards, Kerryon Johnson had 124 yards and two touchdowns, and quarterbacks Sean White and John Franklin III combined for 137 yards on 14 carries.
And it started up front.
“They played much better,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of the offensive line. “We were more physical and had more knock-downs. We had more of what Coach Hand called intimidation blocks. We drove some guys and we were able to kind of balance out the downhill and perimeter yards in the run game enough to help our guys out.”
It was a much-needed confidence boost for a unit that had a lot of questions to answer after its Week 1 performance, and it came against a defensive line Lashlee said is as good as you’re going to see in the Sun Belt Conference.
But it’s no match for the test they’ll face this week against Texas A&M.
Whereas Arkansas State has one former four-star recruit along its defensive line in Dee Liner, Auburn’s first SEC foe of the 2016 season has six four- and two five-stars on its two-deep.
Through two games, Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall, Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson on the outside and Zaycoven Henderson, Josh Walker, Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack on the inside have combined for five sacks, seven quarterback hurries and nine tackles for loss. With their help, the Aggies have allowed just 24 points and a 2.3 yards-per-rush average.
“They’ve got arguably the best combination of pass-rushers there are,” Lashlee said.
Of course, Auburn’s offensive linemen know a little bit of what that is like. As Leff said during the fall, with Carl Lawson and an ultra-deep defensive line group going at them in practice every day, “We’ve got walk-ons on our offensive line that are blocking five-stars on the third-string defensive line. “
But the best way to gain confidence is to perform well in a game. And even though it was only Arkansas State, the Tigers’ offensive did just that on Saturday.
“It definitely provides momentum going into the next game,” Smith said. “Anytime you get momentum going, that's always a positive.”