Sep 1, 2013
Ellis Johnson said he was proud of the defense's effort in Saturday's victory (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - When the game was on the line, when giving up a touchdown could mean giving up the game, first-year Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson turned to his secondary.
And they came through, turning back threat after threat as Auburn beat Washington State 31-24 in the season-opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night.
"Late in the game we just went to tight man coverage and lived with the results," Johnson said. "...With the lack of depth we have back there, the amount of man coverage we played, the number of snaps we had to play and the adversity under which we had to play, I thought our defensive backs put the game on their backs and carried us."
Washington State went to the air 65 times, completing 35, for 344 yards and rushed 23 times for 120 yards. The rushing yards bothered Johnson most.
"One thing that kept coming up all week was stopping their little run game with five in the box, because their passing game just about makes you play with two high safeties," Johnson said. "The only thing I was really disappointed about was we kept allowing them to hit the run in there and move the chains."
But overall, Johnson said, he was proud of what his players did.
"I'm real pleased with the way the kids fought through it," Johnson said. "There were a lot of times they could have lost confidence and cashed it in or gotten frustrated. We've got a lot of things to clean up - missed assignments, techniques, we missed some run fits. But what a good win for a group that is looking for some confidence."
Robenson Therezie, playing the hybrid Star position, intercepted two passes and safety Josh Holsey one. Therezie's first interception set up Auburn's first touchdown in the first quarter. His second, with 4:46 left might have saved the game. On first-and-goal at the Auburn 8, quarterback Connor Halliday threw in the end zone. Therezie grabbed it.
Washington State got one more chance, moving to the Auburn 27 after a Tre Mason fumble. But on fourth-and-5, Halliday's pass was incomplete and the issue was settled.
"I thought our secondary played outstanding," Johnson said. "You can't believe how many snaps of man coverage we played. With 92 snaps, I thought they were unbelievable."
On offense, quarterback Nick Marshall struggled early but picked up steam as the game went on. The Tigers rushed for 297 yards. Junior Corey Grant, getting the first real opportunity of his career, had 146 yards on nine carries. He had a 75-yard touchdown run.
A 5-yard Marshall touchdown run was wiped out by a needless holding penalty. Marshall and backup Jonathan Wallace overthrew receivers wide-open for touchdowns on the same drive. But in the end, the Tigers had enough.
"I can tell you there is a whole lot we have to clean up," Lashlee said. "We had too many penalties. Until the end, we did well on turnovers, but we turned it over when we could have put the game away. That could have cost us. There are a lot of little things. Early in the year, finding a way to win a game like that can go a long way to build their confidence and allow us to keep getting better every week."
The running game didn't leave much room for complaint. The Tigers averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Mason had 73 yards on 15 carries and Cameron Artis-Payne 53 yards on 10 carries. Marshall had 27 yards on nine carries.
"They all three bring something different to the table," Lashlee said. "I could see on any given night, if a guy has the hot hand, we'll ride him. We have to be able to run the football. We're breaking in a new quarterback and have a lot of young guys at receivers. We feel like our offensive line will get better each week."
Lashlee said the playcalling was extremely conservative in an effort to give Marshall time to get comfortable in his first start.
"I don't know if they were tight or jittery or whatever, but the first couple of series were very rocky," Lashlee said. "We were trying to protect Nick early on. We were fairly conservative. We wanted to let him get settled in. I think after a couple of series we finally did. The turnover set up our first touchdown. I think that was good for everybody.
"As the game went on, you could tell he got more comfortable. He didn't turn the football over. That was big. We started taking more shots down the field and doing things we'll do with him. You can see he has plenty of talent. It's just going to be a matter of him and some of those younger wideouts to continue to improve each week."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: