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'Something to cheer about': Big plays lift Auburn's defense

Oct. 9, 2013

Auburn's Jonathan Mincy breaks up a pass directed at Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief (Todd Van Emst photo)

By Charles Goldberg

AUBURN, Ala. - Six sacks. Fourteen tackles for a loss. Two interceptions. Another win. 

Auburn's defense made the plays when it had to against Ole Miss last week, and the fans loved it. 

"The crowd helped us win that game, and a lot of it had to do with our defense gave them something to cheer about," said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. 

Auburn heads into Saturday's 1 p.m. homecoming game against Western Carolina with a conflicted stat sheet. The Tigers are third in the SEC in scoring defense, but 13th in total defense. But, unlike last year, it has come up with big plays. It has six interceptions in five games. Last year's team had two interceptions in 12 games. This year's team has is averaging 2.4 sacks per game. Last year's team averaged 1.8. This year's team is averaging 8.4 tackles for a loss per game. Last year's team averaged 5.5. 

Spending quality time in the other team's backfield is a trend Malzahn can live with, especially with two of the top three offenses in the SEC still on the schedule (as well as three of the bottom five). 

Ole Miss could be the blueprint. 

"That was a big lift," he said. "They were a good offense, good quarterback with scary receivers. Even when they didn't sack him, they put some pressure on him, made him throw the ball away a lot of times. We've been talking about really focusing on really being able to put pressure on a quarterback and we also focused on our run fits and those are the two areas that we improved the most in the last game. That's why I felt it was very encouraging." 

The most sacks in a game in eight years will do that.

"We played in their backfield a lot of the night, and I thought that was a big key to the game," Malzahn said.

"The biggest thing, I think, our team has bought into what our coaches have tried to tell them. They're playing for the guy beside them. They're trying to improve. I think that's the biggest thing that stands out to me." 

It's not a perfect world. Ole Miss ran 89 plays to Auburn's 65. Overall, opponents have run 391 plays. Auburn has run 355. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has talked about "trash plays," or the big plays Auburn has allowed. 

"We need to get better in those areas. That's what we're focusing on," Malzahn said. "As coaches, you focus on the things that you need to improve on. But a lot of times this season when the game has been on the line, our guys have found a way to make plays on both sides of the football. I think that says a lot about our guys." 

Even the defense's lowest point of the night - when linebacker Cassanova McKinzy was taken off the field on a cart with a neck injury - will apparently have a happy ending. He returned to the sidelines in the second half and was on the practice field Tuesday. 

"I know it encouraged me, when you got one of your players carted off that's one of the worst feelings you can have as a coach, and then I looked up and saw him back there on the sideline standing up with a  smile on his face," Malzahn said. "That gave me a lift, I'm sure it gave the rest of our coaches and players a lift, too, because we had some players that who were very concerned. It's tough on players when they see on e of their teammates get carted off. A lot of times that affects teams in a lot of different ways."

Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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