Auburn's defensive line emerging as strength
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Auburn's defensive line hasn't taken over a game quite like this since Nick Fairley left for the NFL.
The Tigers racked up six sacks and 14 tackles behind the line in a win over Mississippi when Dee Ford, Gabe Wright and freshman Carl Lawson consistently harassed quarterback Bo Wallace. It helped signal the growth of a front four that has been one of the team's most improved areas.
"We played in their backfield a lot of the night, and I thought that was a big key to the game," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday. "They got our crowd involved, and our crowd was unbelievable. The crowd helped us win that game, and a lot of it had to do with our defense gave them something to cheer about."
That hasn't happened often on the front lines since Fairley was wreaking havoc during the 2010 national title season en route to becoming a first-round pick by the Detroit Lions. An infusion of freshman help, the emergence of Wright at defensive tackle and a healthy Dee Ford created a perfect storm against the Rebels.
The six sacks were the most the Tigers have produced since the 2005 defense had 11 against Alabama. Wright, Ford and Lawson had two apiece.
The 14 tackles for loss were the most since the Kentucky game in 2004 (16).
It was a significant performance for a team that has struggled on the defensive front the past two seasons. The Tigers (4-1), who face Western Carolina on Saturday, have 12 sacks after managing just 22 each of the past two seasons.
The defensive line has become more of a force even without injured defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker. Malzahn said Tuesday that Whitaker, who hasn't played, will take a redshirt this season.
Nosa Eguae has moved inside from defensive end, where LaDarius Owens has jumped into a starting role. The freshmen have created depth and, increasingly, made plays.
Freshman linemen Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams have made sizable impacts. Last year's sack leader, Ford missed the first two games with a knee injury but again showed off his pass rushing ability against Ole Miss.
Wright has been more of a force inside after managing one sack last season. Malzahn said he's coming off easily his best game of the season.
"I guess you can say that I've been waiting, the fans have been waiting," Wright said. "It's just one of those things I'm very happy it finally clicked.
"I just feel like guys are buying in and this is something if, hopefully, guys continue to buy in and don't get complacent, that this is a level that we plan to stay at or keep excelling. We don't want to have these highs and lows."
Lawson, meanwhile, made the game-ending sack against the Rebels to cap a performance when he had 3.5 tackles behind the line. He gives the Tigers another pass rusher along with Ford. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he made a move against a block that he would have struggled with a couple of weeks ago.
"He's really starting to feel more comfortable with his assignments," Johnson said. "He's able to play and turn himself loose. He's always been physical and reckless but when you do that and make a mistake or go the wrong way, it can be a bad situation."
The line's performance was enough that even fiery position coach Rodney Garner had few complaints on the sidelines. Malzahn hired Garner away from Georgia to lead the front, and the assistant laid the path for improvement by helping land highly regarded prospects Lawson, Daniel and Adams.
"We've had five games so far and there is no doubt this has been our best game," Wright said. "It has been the least angry coach Garner has been on the bench.
"When you get two sacks from a defensive lineman during a drive, there's really not much he can say."