A tale of two maligned secondaries

If you were to glance at the pass defense numbers for Auburn and South Carolina and stopped right there, you might think these teams would struggle to finish above .500.

But play in the SEC championship game?

Obviously, it is possible to give up passing yards in huge chunks and still play at a championship level.

Auburn ranks 106th nationally against the pass, giving up 255.3 yards per game. South Carolina isn’t much better, ranking 99th nationally. The Gamecocks are allowing 245.5 passing yards per game.

The pass efficiency numbers tell a similar story for both defenses. Auburn is 75th nationally and South Carolina 77th. They’ve given up a combined 39 touchdown passes.

But as Auburn senior safety Zac Etheridge says, it’s not so much how many yards or touchdowns you give up, but when you give them up and how many you give up when the game’s on the line.

“When we’ve had to get it done, we get it done,” Etheridge said. “That’s been the mark of this defense. We’ll let everybody else worry about numbers. We’ll worry about getting stops and making plays when it’s time to win the game.”

It’s hard to argue that approach when you look at how effective Auburn has been in the fourth quarter this season.

The Tigers have allowed just 45 points after the third quarter, which includes the overtime win against Clemson. Opponents are 17-of-72 (.236) on third down against them in the second half.

Without question, they’ve been stifling defensively in key situations.

But at what point does their vulnerability against the pass catch up with them?

With Saturday’s SEC championship game rematch with South Carolina approaching, we might find out soon enough.

Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks’ All-America receiver, torched the Auburn secondary back in September. He had eight catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns. He had another pass go off his hands at the end of the game in the end zone that was intercepted.

He’s not likely to see a lot of single coverage Saturday.

“I’m just preparing for everything,” said Jeffery, who has a school-record 1,351 receiving yards. “However they double-team me or triple-team me, it doesn’t matter to me as long as we come out on top.”

Jeffery is one of four different receivers to collect at least 160 receiving yards this season against the Tigers. Alabama’s Julio Jones, Arkansas’ Greg Childs and Georgia’s A.J. Green also did it.

One of the reasons so many teams have taken to the air against the Tigers is that they’ve given up very little in the running game. They’re 10th nationally against the run, allowing just 108 yards per game.

The only SEC team better against the run has been South Carolina, which is fifth nationally and yielding just 93.2 rushing yards per game.

Still, like the Tigers, the Gamecocks have struggled mightily at times this season against the pass.

The low points were the second half against Kentucky and the entire Arkansas game. They couldn't cover anybody in those games and couldn't tackle them, either.

It got to the point where even Steve Spurrier was spending most of his time on the defensive side of the practice field (something he never does) to try and help get things straightened out.

The Gamecocks haven’t played any great passing teams in their past three games, but they’ve also made fewer mistakes in the secondary. One of the other things that’s different about this defense is that their Spur linebacker and dime defensive back, Antonio Allen, is playing much better than he was earlier in the season.

“Our defense and our pass defense has really improved here these last three games, and that’s what’s given us a chance certainly to win,” Spurrier said.