AUBURN, Ala. – When Kevin Steele was hired to be Auburn’s new defensive coordinator, there was some hesitation from the fan base. He came from LSU where his defense had given up 30 or more points in three of their last four SEC games, and he was replacing Will Muschamp, one of the better defensive minds in all of college football.
But Steele walked into his introductory news conference with confidence.
“Auburn has a history of being a hard-nosed, physical defense for years and years, ever since I was a young guy growing up in this state with a high school coach as a father,"Steele said in January. “I certainly know of the tradition and the history of Auburn's hard-nosed defense, and I'm looking forward to being a part of that.
“We'll go through spring practice and do everything we can to build a championship-type program, a championship-type defense.”
A championship-type defense? At Auburn? Under Gus Malzahn, Auburn has never had a unit that ranked in the top half of the SEC in total defense. Even when the Tigers made it to the 2013 BCS title game, the defense allowed 421 yards per game.
But the defense Saturday that held Arkansas to 25 yards rushing and 215 total yards? That looked like the championship-type defense Steele was referring to.
On the opening series of the game, Montravius Adams wrapped up Rawleigh Williams, the SEC’s leading rusher, behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of 4. On the very next play, Carl Lawson sacked quarterback Austin Allen for another 4-yard loss. Before they knew what hit them, the Razorbacks were facing a third-and-18. And it was that way all night.
The Auburn defense finished with 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and 15 quarterback hurries (Lawson had seven of them).
“That was one of the goals to try to make them one-dimensional and try to get after the quarterback,” Malzahn said. “And our guys up front, in those passing situations, did a super job.
“Our defense, I can’t say enough about them. They’re improving each week.”
The offense has gotten most of the credit the past couple weeks because they’re beginning to look like the group that carried Auburn to that SEC championship in 2013, but the defense has played well throughout the season.
After Saturday, Auburn now ranks third nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 14.1 points per game. The Tigers have allowed multiple touchdowns in a game only three times this season (Arkansas State, Texas A&M, Mississippi State), and the 10 touchdowns allowed in total by this group is the fewest allowed through seven games since 2006.
Only LSU, Michigan and Florida have allowed fewer this year.
“As a unit, we don’t feel like people respect our defense enough,” Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “We feel like we’re a really good defense. They can keep doubting. We’re just going to keep proving them wrong and earning everybody’s respect.”
Maybe holding the SEC’s leading rusher to 22 yards on 13 carries is enough to at least turn some heads across the country. Maybe it will take another strong performance this Saturday, when the Tigers travel to Ole Miss to face Chad Kelly, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.
Either way, this Auburn defense is a hard-nosed, physical group that is still capable of carrying the Tigers to an SEC championship – just as Steele predicted when he was hired.