Nov. 16, 2013
Auburn's Carl Lawson, left, and Jake Holland helped stop Tennessee last week (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. – Gus Malzahn has brought Auburn’s offense back to life in a spectacular fashion this season.
Mark Richt wants to put in a good word for another guy, too. The Georgia coach says Auburn defensive coordinator Ellish Johnson has also been instrumental in the Tigers’ turnaround season, just like Richt has seen Johnson do it at other places.
Richt has matched wits against Johnson when he was at Mississippi State and South Carolina, and will do it again at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The stakes will be high when Auburn, 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, meets Georgia, 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the league, in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Richt figures to have his hands full with Malzahn’s offense. And Johnson’s defense.
"He’s outstanding," Richt said. "There’s a reason why Auburn is playing so much better on defense. He has a long history of going to different places and, in the very first season, turning that thing around statistically in a big way, and he’s done it again here at Auburn."
Did somebody say they want facts? Here are some facts: The year before Johnson arrived at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs were ranked 117th in the country in scoring defense. State improved to 60th in his first year. The year before Johnson arrived at South Carolina, the Gamecocks were ranked 39th in scoring defense. South Carolina improved to 31st in his first year. And last year at Auburn, the season before Johnson arrived, the Tigers were ranked 66th in scoring defense. Today, Auburn is ranked 22nd.
Auburn has held every opponent below its season scoring average.
Richt knows Auburn’s offense – first in the SEC in rushing and second in total offense – has grabbed most of the headlines this season. But he knows there's more.
"As much as running the football has been big for Auburn, and Nick Marshall playing great has been big, and the whole attitude of what Coach Malzahn has brought to the team, that defense has been a big part of this turnaround as well," he said.
Malzahn said the same during his Tiger Talk radio appearance Thursday night.
"Coach Johnson has done a great job as well as has the rest of his staff. We think the future is very bright on defense," Malzahn said.
Auburn’s defense will be challenged by Georgia’s dual threat of the passing and gamesmanship of quarterback Aaron Murray and the running of tailback Todd Gurley.
There’s certainly a twist to this year’s Auburn defense versus Georgia. Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner spent the previous 15 seasons with the Bulldogs. Does he know secrets? Richt says there are few secrets in football.
"I think people know what we’re going to do. Can they out-execute us? Same thing with us, can we out-execute them? After awhile, there are not that many secrets," Richt said. "Most everything you can learn, you can learn watching the film."
Johnson’s scoring defense stats stand strong. Auburn is 10th in the SEC in total defense, but fourth in scoring defense and second in red zone defense.
Most of Auburn’s good defensive work has been done in the second half of games. Defensive lineman Gabe Wright says the mistakes in the first half are "definitely on the players. We're as amped as anybody from the hotel meeting to driving to the stadium to coming out. I'm not sure if it's mental. More than anything, I probably say it is going to be focus. Maybe we've got to lower that amp."
Lower the amp? That brings Wright to Garner, a former Auburn player and coach, facing the team he spent coaching the previous 15 seasons.
"Guys kind of brought it up that Coach G might be a little over the edge. I don't that he can get more over the edge than he already is, to be honest," Wright said with a laugh. "But if he can, then bring it on. I know he's going to feel some way about it, but him being a true Auburn man, I know nothing is going to overdo that."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine