Auburn's defense came into 2012 with a lot of preseason hype, especially around the line and secondary. At the beginning of the season, I thought the D-line would be not only one of the best in the SEC, but also one of the best in the country. I expected the secondary to be good, not great, but at least able to hold its own in games. As for the linebackers, I was undecided. I knew linebacker Daren Bates would show up strong, but there were question marks everywhere else. The first three games proved me wrong. After Clemson, Mississippi State, and Louisiana-Monroe, I was seriously worried about Auburn's ability to stop opposing teams' offenses. In those games, we could not stop the run, could not defend against short passes, and gave up way too many big plays. That, coupled with an offense that could not produce, was a recipe for disaster.
Fast forward to LSU, the No. 2 team in the nation -- if you believe in polls and rankings -- touted as solid up and down. The Tigers' offense had put up over 240 yards rushing and at least 192 passing in each of their first three games. LSU's total offense for the first three games was 508, 437 and 472 yards, respectively. Yes, I know these numbers were against North Texas, Washington and Idaho, but those are still solid numbers, especially for an offense with a new starting quarterback. After looking at how Auburn's defense managed the last three games, it was beginning to look like it would be a long day on Sept. 22. Clemson had amassed 528 total yards, 320 of them being on the ground. For the Mississippi State game, the numbers dropped to 388 total yards (166 rushing, 222 passing), but Auburn still allowed explosive scoring plays. ULM eclipsed 410 total yards, with 165 rushing and 245 passing. All three ran spread-style offenses, with quarterbacks who could throw and hurt defenses with their legs.
LSU was a totally different beast. The Bayou Bengals brought in a more traditional offense with lots of pro and I-formation plays. Right out of the gate, I could see a change in Auburn's defense. They were fired up. The first thing that jumped out at me was how physical they were. The D-line was taking on blockers and not giving up any ground. They were getting off blocks and moving to the ball. The backside was moving vertically to the ball carrier. The safeties were flying up for run support.
This physical, "get the ball no matter what" play was apparent on LSU's first drive. With 10:45 remaining in the first quarter, LSU lined up in a two-tight end, power-I set on 2nd and 6. The play was a run up the middle with the fullback lead. A hole opened for the fullback to lead into, but Bates stepped up and laid a good lick on the blocker. Even though Bates got blocked out, the running back was met with force by linebacker Jake Holland and strong safety Erique Florence and stopped in his tracks. The back then stepped to the side, only to find free safety Demetruce McNeal in his face and tackle Angelo Blackson pulling him down from behind. Swarming to the football. Gang tackling. Safeties coming in with big hits. It was very apparent that this defense had come to play lights out. The work on this first drive came with reward, as Auburn forced a turnover on the 2-yard line.
The next LSU drive produced a touchdown. Even in this drive, there were still signs of improvement. Cornerback Chris Davis had a second down pass, a slant, thrown to his side, and he came up with a big hit on the receiver and forced an incompletion in the red zone. On 1st and goal, LSU had a power run by the fullback up the middle. Tackle Jeffrey Whitaker got off his block and met the back at the line of scrimmage for the no gain stop on the 2-yard line. YES, WHITAKER GOT OFF HIS BLOCK. He was helped by Blackson and linebacker Cassanova McKinzy on the play, another instance of the defense swarming to the ball.
During the third offensive drive by LSU, a first down run to the left got little yardage as Holland mirrored the ball carrier all the way to the sideline. He was hit and forced out of bounds by McNeal and cornerback Jonathon Mincy. The pursuit on this play was exactly how a defense should work to the sideline. The middle linebacker (Holland) kept the running back from going up field. The right end (Dee Ford) flew across the field with backside containment. Then to finish the play, the free safety (McNeal) came up to wrap up the back and drove his feet to force him out of bounds. The cornerback (Mincy) got in at the last minute to ensure the force out of bounds for a 1 yard gain.
Two plays later, the Tigers forced another turnover. Auburn only rushed three on a 3rd down pass from LSU, and Corey Lemonier shed a cut block and got to the QB. He forced a forced a fumble that was recovered by Blackson on LSU's 26-yard line. Auburn's offense was able to take advantage and score a touchdown a few plays later to cut the lead to 9-7. LSU's next possession brought a three-and-out, with big plays from Gabe Wright and Jermaine Whitehead. Again, swarming to the ball and a good open field tackle by Whitehead forced a 4th-and-inches and an LSU punt.
With 7:25 left in the second quarter, LSU faced a 3rd-and-2. Auburn's defensive line pushed two yards into the backfield, allowing Bates, McNeal and Florence to come up and make the stop for a one yard loss. You have to give Whitaker and Blackson credit on that play for getting an unbelievable push that created havoc in the backfield. Again, physical play, swarming to the ball, and finishing it all off with gang tackling were the keys to success.
The next few LSU possessions all went for punts off great Auburn run defense and perfect third-down defending. Whitehead and cornerback Joshua Holsey -- a true freshman! -- both had touchdown-saving pass breakups. Wright got his big paw up and batted down a ball on 3rd and long forcing a LSU punt from their own endzone. The only LSU points for the remainder of the game came from Quan Bray's muffed punt that gave LSU good field position and an eventual field goal. The only time LSU got any significant yardage in the second half was in the air. The Tigers did not convert a third down in the second or third quarters, and they only had two conversions in the fourth quarter.
Now, with the good comes the bad. Holland had a few decent plays, but overall, I have to rate his performance as poor. He keeps doing the same things week to week. He gets blocked out more often than not. On the first LSU drive of the game, the fullback took on Holland and pushed him back five to six yards. His play calling ability and getting everyone lined up has definitely improved, but he has to get off blocks. Holland also has to get upfield on running plays. Bates is probably the best at finding holes in the line and getting in there to disrupt plays. He also gets blocked out at times, but he is finding ways to get off blocks and make plays. He and fellow linebacker Jonathan Evans have progressed in this respect. Hopefully, Holland will too.
There were also some missed tackles. One that sticks out in my mind is the play in the first half when Lemonier got in the backfield on a running play and was juked-out by the running back. That tackle would have been a three-to-four-yard loss. Another bad missed tackle came in the fourth quarter. Mettenberger had a play action roll out to the right and ended up throwing it back across the field. A catch was made, and Evans was in position to make a tackle for no gain, but instead over pursued. The pass ended up being a 33-yard gain and proved to be a crushing blow for Auburn's comeback attempt.
Auburn's defense still has a long way to go. However, on Saturday night, progress was made. The defense was supposed to be a lot better with Brian VanGorder's scheme, and we're finally seeing that. The first three games were not good showings, but in the fourth game of the year, we can start to see the transition. At the beginning of the year, Auburn defenders were not who they wanted to be, but they are becoming exactly who they thought they were. This was the kind of defense I assumed we would see in the first game -- a relentless line, an improved secondary, and overall better play-calling. Better late than never. Now, we just have to see if this defense can continue to get better through the bye week and make some noise in October. War Damn Defense!