By Brad Bacon
AUBURN, Ala. (UTC/AP) — It was the ultimate call-out for an offensive lineman.
No. 3 Auburn coach Gene Chizik told his most experienced group three weeks into the season they weren’t being physical enough. He hasn’t had to repeat that message.
The Tigers’ offensive line has bullied opposing defenses ever since, helping spearhead one of the nation’s top rushing attacks and string together 300-yard games against Southeastern Conference defenses.
“It was one of those things where we were being physical, but it was just he wasn’t seeing enough of it,” guard Mike Berry said. “He knew we had the potential to be one of the best offensive lines out there. He just called us out that we had the potential to be even greater. We stepped up to the challenge and put it on our backs.”
The Tigers (9-0, 6-0 SEC) are averaging 352 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns on the ground over their last five games against league teams going into Saturday’s game with Chattanooga. The lowest output: 311 yards at Kentucky.
The highest: 440 against LSU, which has the SEC’s top defense. The Tigers are running for 307.7 yards a game and no SEC team has averaged 300-plus since the 1985 Auburn team led by Bo Jackson.
Consider Chizik pleased.
“I don’t think there’s any question in my mind: everything has started with the offensive line playing much better than they did earlier in the year,” he said. “That’s what makes it go.”
It’s not just lip service paid to the guys who do the dirty work but get little of the attention, either. Auburn has four senior starters on the offensive line with a collective 145 career starts.
And the Tigers kept up the success against Mississippi when Newton mostly handed off to tailbacks Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb instead of trying to break free for his own yards. Dyer wound up with 180 yards and McCalebb had 99.
“The last three or four weeks, it’s been quarterback runs,” Chizik said. “Well, they took away the quarterback runs and now it became a tailback running game. I think the stabilizing force in there is not necessarily the quarterbacks or the tailbacks. It’s got to go back to the offensive line. I think it all starts with the offensive line.
“It’s been a great thing to watch the improvement of those guys over the last month.”
Chizik’s next talk to the linemen came in a meeting after the LSU game, but this time he came in praise. And Ziemba said that meant a lot because “he doesn’t toss around compliments very often.”
“We like to be appreciated for what we do,” Ziemba said. “Every day I turn on ESPN and see Cam making a huge run or throwing the football well, or somebody else doing some good things, that’s appreciation in itself.”
Besides, he can borrow one of coach Jeff Grimes’ lines: “Little guys follow the big guys.”
The line’s only open spot entering the season was right tackle. A.J. Greene won the job but was injured against Clemson in Game 3, and junior college transfer Brandon Mosley has started since then.
The 6-foot-8, 319-pound Ziemba assured that the line would be one of the team’s strengths when he bypassed the NFL draft to return for his senior season.
But many of Auburn’s best runs have come behind center Ryan Pugh and guards Berry and Byron Isom, who are often called upon to do their version of a sprint downfield to take on a linebacker.
“It’s one of those things you’ve got to get on your horse,” Berry said. “Pulling 300 around isn’t an easy task. And you know (offensive coordinator Gus) Malzahn isn’t afraid to run the same play again. So you’ve got to be conditioned when your number is called.”
Defensive tackle Zach Clayton enjoys watching it happen.
“It’s always fun to see Mike Berry just pull around and cream somebody,” Clayton said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.