De­fense an­swers chal­lenge at Auburn

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - SPORTS - By John Zenor

AUBURN, ALA. » This Auburn team isn’t quite like the other re­ally good ones dur­ing Gus Malzahn’s stints as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and then head coach.

Sure, the sixth-ranked Tigers’ of­fense is putting up strong num­bers but now they’re backed up by a de­fense that’s been just as good. That was more than ev­i­dent in last Satur­day’s 40-17 romp over No. 7 Ge­or­gia , which came in lead­ing the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence in rush­ing and left with 46 yards on the ground.

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kevin Steele had chal­lenged his play­ers lead­ing up to the game, and they re­sponded.

“We’d been a good de­fense, but at some point in time you’ve got to take the next step to go from good to re­ally good to play like an elite de­fense,” Steele said. “They took that chal­lenge very se­ri­ously.”

The Tigers’ de­fense was pretty good last year, too, but the of­fense was less con­sis­tent.

Now, both are among the SEC’s top units go­ing into Satur­day’s game with Louisiana-Mon­roe. Sta­tis­ti­cally this de­fense is sig­nif­i­cantly stronger than in Auburn’s 2010 na­tional cham­pi­onship sea­son, when Malzahn was the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor. It has also markedly im­proved since 2013’s run to the na­tional ti­tle game in his first sea­son back as head coach.

The Tigers rank ninth na­tion­ally in to­tal de­fense, giv­ing up 299.5 yards per game. They’re the No. 11 scor­ing de­fense (16.9 points per game).

The 2010 de­fense was su­perb against the run but 53rd in scor­ing de­fense (24.1 ppg) and 60th in to­tal de­fense (368.4 ypg). The 2013 de­fense put up sim­i­larly medi­ocre num­bers, al­low­ing 24.7 points (48th) and 421 yards (86th) a game.

A front seven that had to re­place cur­rent NFL play­ers Carl Law­son and Mon­trav­ius Adams was es­pe­cially tough in stop­ping Ge­or­gia tail­bawcks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

“I think it has to im­press ev­ery­body with the way they did the other night stop­ping the run,” Malzahn said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of get­ting af­ter quar­ter­backs in pass­ing sit­u­a­tions this year but when you stop the run like we did, it’s def­i­nitely eye-open­ing. I’m real proud of our de­fen­sive front. It ought to give them con­fi­dence mov­ing for­ward.”

The de­fense has been led by line­backer Jeff Hol­land, who tops the SEC and ranks ninth na­tion­ally with nine sacks while also forc­ing four fum­bles. Carl­ton Davis is one of the league’s top cor­ner­backs. On the line, sopho­more Der­rick Brown has ex­celled as the starter with 39 tackles and the line.

The group came up big in that Ge­or­gia game, which Steele said will stand out in a coach­ing ca­reer that’s spanned nearly four decades.

“If you ask me 38 years from now, knock on wood, I’ll re­mem­ber Satur­day night,” said Steele, in his sec­ond sea­son since leav­ing the same job at LSU.

He said the Tigers de­fend­ers had just four or five missed tackles “and that’s amaz­ing.”

Now the chal­lenge is to sus­tain that level of play. ULM is av­er­ag­ing 37 points per game but the big­gest chal­lenge on the schedule now is No. 1 Alabama in two weeks .

If the Tigers win they have to de­fend against Chubb & Co. again in the SEC cham­pi­onship game and hope for an­other “elite” per­for­mance. To Steele, that means dom­i­nat­ing an op­po­nent to the ex­tent that it has a ma­jor im­pact on the whole game.

“They did for that time frame for the other night,” Steele said.

“We’ve got to line up and do it again in this busi­ness, but they at least know what it tastes like.” 7.5 stops be­hind

BRYNN AN­DER­SON — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ge­or­gia run­ning back Nick Chubb is tack­led by Auburn line­backer Jeff Hol­land dur­ing the first half on Satur­day Auburn, Ala. in

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