No.15 Auburn hopes to get better versus Mercer

The criticism of Auburn's offense is overshadowing a Tigers' defense that appears capable of keeping coach Gus Malzahn's team competitive every time it steps on the field.

And if the offense eventually clicks -- maybe in a closing stretch featuring home games against No. 13 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama, for example -- don't count No. 15 Auburn out of anything yet.

Auburn should be able to find success all over the field this week, when FCS member Mercer strolls into town to face some angry Tigers, who got popped 14-6 at defending national champion Clemson last week.

"Our goals are all still intact," Malzahn said. "We're a good football team. Obviously, we didn't get it done on one side of the football. It's frustrating for me, it's frustrating for our coaches, but we have a team with great leadership. We have a staff that's very close, and we're going to put it in our rearview mirror. Our mind is on Mercer. We're going to play well and we need to improve each week. We have the makings of a good football team."

No doubt, Auburn's loss to No. 2 Clemson wasn't pretty, especially offensively. New quarterback Jarrett Stidham was sacked 11 times, and the Tigers managed 117 yards offense, 13 on the ground. Stidham, a sophomore transfer from Baylor, completed 13 of 24 passes for 79 yards, while under intense, constant pressure.

"Jarrett's a really good quarterback, but there were times we didn't have anybody open," Malzahn said after the loss. "That (the sacks) had something to do with him holding the football. He's a good quarterback; he's going to have a very good year."

Stidham didn't point fingers or express frustrations after the game.

"We just have to execute better all around," Stidham said. "We're going to regroup and we're going to be a lot better.

"I don't think it was frustrating at all," he added in regard to the sacks. "They (Auburn's offensive line) played their butts off just like everybody else. We just didn't execute. There were a lot of things I could have done a lot better tonight. It starts with me because I'm the one person who has the ball in my hands every play."

Part of Auburn's woes on offense can be traced to its running backs.

Junior running back Kerryon Johnson, who rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the 41-7 season-opening victory over Georgia Southern, did not play against Clemson because of a hamstring injury.

Also, junior running back Kamryn Pettway rushed for 74 yards on 22 carries against Clemson while slowed with plantar fasciitis. He was making his season debut after he was suspended (undisclosed reason) for the Georgia Southern game.

While the offense struggled to put together any semblance of a drive, Auburn's defense turned in its second straight impressive performance to start the season.

Clemson finished with only 281 yards of offense. The 14 points were the fewest Clemson had scored since the 2014 season.

"We played our hearts out. We can only get better from here. We just build," defensive back Carlton Davis said. "It's not like we had a bad game. It was a tough fight. It was a brawl. There are a couple plays we should have made down the road that would have put us in better shape and given our offense more field position to work with."

Auburn heads into homecoming weekend ranked eighth in the nation in total defense.

"We are going to improve. We're going to be a good offense, that's for sure," Malzahn told reporters Tuesday. "We need to look at it from the big-picture standpoint that (Clemson) is one of the best teams in college football, if not the best. We have a very good defense, we have a good kicking game and we're going to improve on offense."

Mercer (1-1) is coming off a disappointing 28-27 loss to Wofford, the ninth-ranked team in the FCS, The Bears had a 27-14 lead with 6:18 to play, but surrendered two late touchdowns.

"I told the team that it's early in the season," Mercer coach Bobby Lamb said after the loss. "There will be a lot of games that come down to the wire. We can go two ways ... we can come in here tomorrow and buckle up our boots and go for the next one, or we can pout and keep losing games because of that. I think this team is resilient and that they'll come back tomorrow ready to work."

The Bears, who hail from Macon, Ga., had their schedule disrupted a bit by Hurricane Irma, which caused players to be out of class Monday and Tuesday.

Mercer practiced Tuesday and Lamb said he didn't think the storm impacted preparations for Auburn significantly.

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