Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze is preparing for his first-ever Iron Bowl this Saturday and wishes that his morale was higher.
He led his team on a three-game SEC win streak before tripping up in a humiliating way last Saturday against New Mexico State, 31-10.
Freeze is still disappointed in the way last Saturday transpired, and hopes last week’s letdown does not spill over into the team’s most important game of the season. Has his team dropped the loss and moved on? Freeze is not ready to say just yet.
“I don’t think I’ll know that until after Tuesday’s practice, but Tuesday’s practice needs to be physical. It needs to set the tone on what this game is going to be like. You’re going to get punched in the mouth in this game, and you better be ready to respond. It’s going to be a physical test of your will and of you physically, also. So Tuesday needs to be physical. It can’t be that totally, but it needs to set that tone.”
Freeze offered his take on many other aspects of the New Mexico State game, as well as his plans to slow down Alabama this Saturday during his weekly press conference on Monday. Here’s everything that Freeze said ahead of the 88th Iron Bowl.
“(That was) about as disappointing as I’ve ever been in coaching with Saturday’s effort. It was an embarrassment, too. It can’t happen like that. It starts with me. I have to get our coaches and our players ready to play, and I obviously missed the mark tremendously. It’s frustrating and sickening to watch. Jerry Kill’s crew did exactly what they needed to do to win the game. You have to give them credit. They’re a really good football team. We didn’t respond in any way. That is very frustrating, and I’m ticked off. I hope (the players are) ticked off. I haven’t seen them yet. We have to learn from that, for sure, but it’s very disappointing. One of the things that I think is the greatest challenge we have in college football rooms, team rooms and staffing is true connection to where I’m really playing for you and playing for the school. When we have that true connection and relationship, you can really hold each other accountable. That’s something I have to work on is for us to feel more connected for when you get hit in the face like you did Saturday. Now, we quickly have to turn the page and put that behind us. We all know what the Iron Bowl means to so many, and you can fix your feelings a whole heck of a lot with a good performance in that game. We have to have a balancing act today when we get with the team on owning mine and everyone who had a responsibility in the way that we played Saturday. We have to own that, but we have to move forward pretty quickly to get ready for what I think is the best team I’ve seen on film at the point at which we’re playing them. They’re playing at an extremely high level, and what a rivalry to be a part of. We’re going to try to educate our young men as best we can with the use of former players and the history of this great game. Hopefully they have a clear understanding of what this means to so many people.”
Is there a way to bounce back?
“I don’t know yet. I hope so. That’s part of playing this game. If you’ve played or coached this game long enough, you’re going to have some of those. How you respond to it will determine a lot about you as a team and as a person. I wish I had a better pulse for that, but I haven’t seen them yet. I met with the Culture Counsel this morning, and I liked their response. That’s going to be a good test for all of us is to see how we respond.”
Keeping emotions in check
“I hadn’t given that a lot of thought, because I’m so ticked off at the way we played [Saturday]. I think the biggest temptation you have right now is trying to make sure you don’t overdo the game plan and try to do too much because you think you have to do ’this, this, this, and this’ to have a chance to win against one of the elite teams in the country. I think you have to guard against that for sure. The ‘over amped-up’ I haven’t seen sensed because most everybody I’ve seen –it’s like they’re in a fog from what happened Saturday — and we’ve got to snap out of that fast. I need to see a little amped up come practice today and tomorrow.”
Improving the trenches
“A lesson in humility, for sure. I will say offensively I think we could’ve run the ball, but we never had the chance, truthfully and that’s not an excuse. We had, what, 42 true offensive plays, and as the game went on, it was obvious they were controlling the clock very well and you’ve got to press a little bit. Whenever we did get on schedule, we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties, so I’m not sure how effective we could have been running the ball or not, truthfully. It was just that type of game. The most discouraging thing is our inability to get off of the field and stop their explosive plays, defensively. As good as we were with the offensive line, defensive line, special teams at Arkansas, we were equally as bad in all three Saturday.”
Staying the focus
“Well, my lesson that I’m teaching today is about focus, and we’ll see if they respond. They have a choice, everybody has a choice in how you respond to whatever you’re dealing with, and we’ll all have that choice this week. You sure hope that if they have any type of competitive spirit in them as an individual, they’re going to shake off the cobwebs and get ready for this war that they’re getting ready to go into, and it will be that.”
You play how you practice
“I was nervous and anxious about how we would handle the success of three straight wins and becoming bowl eligible. Checking that box, and now you got Alabama next. Sometimes I can talk myself into believing things and so you have to kind of balance that. I told my wife Saturday morning that I’m nervous about if we are ready. To understand that you have to earn the right to win a game. So, I was concerned, but it’s my job to have them ready. It’s us coaches’ job. We as a staff, this morning, had a lot of heart to hearts. Obviously, we failed at getting that message across to our young men.”
Defending Alabama QB Jalen Milroe
“We didn’t not fare well against a kid similar to him at LSU. Now he is playing at a very high level with good receivers and good running backs. It is a very difficult task for sure. I don’t know that you completely do that. You got to hope that you do limit those explosive play somewhat. Stopping him, no one has really done that. We got to mix up the coverages and mix up the plan. Figure out if we can get pressure to him or not. Do we need a spy? We have all those things going through our heads right now. How much can our kids handle and do well against all the different sets you might see?”
What does Freeze remember about the kick six?
“I don’t think that I saw it live. I believe I would have remembered that vividly. So, we must have been either playing at the same time, or on a flight back. I do remember once I first saw it and found out I couldn’t wait to call Gus (Malzahn) and say, ‘You got to explain to me how that felt.’ That’s got to be one of the all-time, maybe the all-time greatest finishes in college football. If not, it’s got to be top three. Man, what a finish that was.”
His message to Auburn fans
“The Auburn faithful has persevered through a lot of things, and they show up. I’ve already apologized a hundred times for the effort that we did not give them Saturday. This is not the first program in year one to have some tough losses like this. I could go down the list and mention some but you probably know who they are better than I. We are in a rebuild, and that’s no excuse for what happened Saturday. We expect to give you the best of ourselves come Saturday in the Iron Bowl, so we appreciate all of the times you give us your best, and I know this Saturday will be no different for them.”
Getting the run game going again
“It’s hard. No one is running too much on that defensive front. We’ll have a good plan. Our backs are good, our tight ends are good and our o-line is competitive, but we do need to establish the run game. It will be no fun if you’re having to drop back and throw every down, that won’t work. Number 15 (Dallas Turner) and number 41 (Chris Braswell) off the edge for them are both really, really good. We need to stay balanced and make them have to honor the run game.”
What Nick Saban-coached teams do well
“Tackle and mix up coverages. Fronts haven’t changed much. There’s not a whole lot you can do with that. He has a few more coverages that he runs now, but his teams are always physical and they’re always going to tackle well. You see that very vividly on these tapes, also.”
Why the gameplan failed against New Mexico State
“Yeah, the time of possession killed our offense, for sure, and the opportunities we had, but defensively it was more missed tackles than we’ve had the last three games combined. We misaligned more times. The focus that we had for the gameplan was obviously lacking, and we didn’t get it done. There weren’t a whole lot of adjustments to do. They didn’t do a whole lot, but man you have to give them credit. When they did have a chance to make a throw in a tight window and make a catch in a tight window, to convert a third down or a fourth down or a score, they made every single play. So give them credit for that, but we tackled so poorly.”
Getting into 3rd and short situations
“Yeah, the game will get really difficult if we’re not in some third-and-managables. It was just a nightmare of everything we’ve done pretty well the last few weeks – winning first down, not having penalties, taking care of the ball – all of those things were pretty non-existent Saturday. We’re going to have to be very strategic about our first and second down calls to get us in that third-and-manageable. I saw their stats on third down are pretty dang good. I can’t remember what they were, but they are in the top three or four in third downs.”
Recruits that are visiting this weekend
“We expect to have a plethora of great players here, and it will be our opportunity to present to them one last time before the season ends how great the atmosphere is at Auburn. Our fans are great, and the Auburn family is great to be a part of. Hopefully we can solidify all the ones who are currently committed and maybe swing a few others to say, ‘Man, I want to go help them build something there. I know they can. They have the resources. They have the support.’ We just need some players to come join us.”
Looking forward to the Jordan-Hare atmosphere this weekend
“I think it speaks to the history and the people that have gone before us – fans and coaches and players who understood what this rivalry meant to so many and they were willing to lay it on the line. Particularly doing it here in Jordan-Hare where our fans have been incredible, and I think they’ll even be at another level come Saturday. It just speaks to the love and passion that our people have for our program, particularly when you’re playing in this game.”