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 tailbacks 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 7.5 stops behind 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.”