AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Auburn’s defenders are trying to grab some attention for themselves.
The fifth-ranked Tigers appear to have made significant improvements on defense after winning a Southeastern Conference title last season with a group that came up with big stops at times but was otherwise fairly pedestrian.
They play Louisiana Tech on Saturday but defensive leaders made their pitch to teammates before the Kansas State game, which turned into an uncharacteristically low-scoring 20-14 win.
”The message from this past meeting was, We’ve got to make a name for ourselves,” Auburn safety Josh Holsey said. ”This is going to be the game where it’s not going to be just about the offense or just about the special teams. We’re going to make sure people know that Auburn has a defense as well.
”So we went into that game with a big chip on our shoulder making sure the defense showed up and played to the best of their ability the entire game.”
It’s not enough to make Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle offense take a backseat, but the Tigers (3-0) have looked better this season on defense, especially against the run.
They’ve climbed more than 40 spots in three major statistical categories nationally. Auburn ranks 23rd in total defense (up from 86th last season) and 11th in run defense (compared to 62nd). They’ve climbed 41 spots in pass defense from last year’s ranking of 100th and are 13th in scoring, a rise from 32nd.
”It all starts up front with their defensive lineman, they are violent,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. ”They are all over 300 pounds. It is not so much the weight as it is the athleticism and strength. They are penetrators. They try and push you into the backfield and they do a great job.”
The improved numbers come despite losing two starters, defensive end Carl Lawson to a knee injury and safety Jermaine Whitehead to an indefinite suspension carrying over to at least a second game. The Tigers allowed only two second-half rushing yards in the opener against Arkansas. The Razorbacks gained 153 yards on the ground, less than half of their 382-yard average in the three games since.
”I think we definitely improved,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. ”We’re very good right now stopping the run. I know the very first half of the Arkansas game they had some new wrinkles and I think everybody can see they’re pretty good at running the football. ”
Without Lawson and departed NFL first-round pick Dee Ford, the Tigers’ biggest deficiency is in the pass rush. Auburn has an abundance of defensive line depth but has been stronger inside, starting a whole new front four against Kansas State.
But there’s no dominant pass rusher to harass the quarterbacks in passing situations.
”We’ve played really good against the run, especially inside,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. ”I think our front guys have really played disciplined. They’ve been good, and they’re talented guys, but we haven’t been able to find that pass rush.”
The Tigers have intercepted six passes with a secondary relying heavily on two former offensive players. Johnathan Ford, moved from running back to cornerback before last season, and leads the team with 21 tackles. Converted wide receiver Trovon Reed has two interceptions in a backup role.
Holsey replaced Whitehead against Kansas State and produced a career-high 11 tackles.
The defensive effort was enough to overcome the least productive offensive performance of Malzahn’s first 17 games in total yards.
”Obviously the offense is going to do what they do each week and get better, but as a defense we want to make a name for ourselves and show we can hold people and offenses,” Jones said.