AUBURN, Ala. — Maybe Auburn’s defense was more prepared after facing off against Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and chasing down Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight.
Maybe it was the motivation the unit had to avenge the embarrassing walloping it received in Baton Rouge last year. Or perhaps LSU quarterback Danny Etling ( a Purdue transfer) was overwhelmed in his first SEC road start.
Whatever parts comprised the equation, Auburn’s defense finally found the right answer — and the quarterback — they’d been searching.
Carl Lawson wrapped up LSU’s Etling in the second quarter. Senior Montravius Adams and true freshman Marlon Davidson followed early in the second half, splitting a sack. With just less than 30 seconds to go in Saturday game, Lawson added a sack. The junior’s second sack raised Auburn’s nightly total to three.
It also brought fans to their feet.
“It was big, wasn’t it?” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “That one there at the end was probably the play of the game. He came off the edge, dipped the shoulder and made a huge impact play.”
Sophomore linebacker Deshaun Davis and other members of Kevin Steele’s defense had encouraged Lawson — who’s effort and production was scrutinized through Auburn’s first three games — for most of the evening.
“I was like, ‘Carl, you’re a superhero. Go get a sack,’” said Davis, jokingly. “He came up big for the team and that was a huge turning point on that drive.”
Adams had talked with Lawson about his stats previously. He knew his fellow defensive lineman’s frustrations regarding his lack of playmaking early in the year. The senior was happy to see all of Lawson’s hard work pay off.
“When a person has been working and working all year and is known as a great pass rusher, but he’s not getting those sacks,” Adams said. “It can be frustrating. But I feel like a little weight has been lifted off his shoulders. I feel like he’s going to keep getting better.”
Lawson was pleased with the plays he made, but was more focused on his unit’s improvement and perseverance.
“Its’ awesome, we’ve been going through some down times, but we’ve all stayed together,” Lawson said. “(We’ve) stuck together, worked out, had energy, no fighting, no internal things going on, so I knew eventually it was going happen. It was just special when it did. To just get a win for this team, and to get a win for Auburn.”
Auburn’s three sacks were the most against an SEC opponent since the Tigers” 30-27 victory against Kentucky last October.
The defense also recorded eight tackles for loss. The last time Auburn’s defense neared that total against a conference challenger was November of 2014, when the Tigers traveled to Oxford, Miss., defeating Ole Miss 35-31.
Even in Auburn’s impressive 18-13 win against LSU, its defense wasn’t perfect. Just as Watson and Knight previously slipped away from Auburn’s D, Etling managed to throw a touchdown in the first quarter.
“That’s a good team. Sometimes when you’re in great position, (but) that’s an SEC football team,” Davis said. “They’re still going to make plays. They have great playmakers. I feel like their quarterback did a great job of scrambling around and giving his receivers time to get open. They made a lot of great plays.”
Even with a few mistakes, Auburn’s defense can find reassurance in the things they did right. In the week leading up to the game against LSU, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele had stressed stopping the run and playing without hesitation.
“He kept saying all week, ‘Pull the trigger. Don’t hesitate, don’t shuffle feet. Just go. If you miss them, you miss them. You’ll slow them down,’” junior defensive back Tray Matthews said. “That’s what we did. It’s great confidence, especially with losing last week, and the Clemson game — a game that we could’ve won. This is just great momentum, and we can just keep going on and keep getting better.”
More tests lie ahead for Auburn. They’ve yet to face Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly or Alabama’s true freshman Jalen Hurts. The Tigers have figured out how to reach the result, and the person, they’re hunting for — now they just have to do it again.