AUBURN, Ala. — Tray Matthews didn’t see this coming from Auburn football’s defensive line.
As the senior safety gears up for his second meeting in four weeks with Georgia, his former team, he admits the Tigers’ front four is playing at a level higher than he expected.
“They’re definitely one of the best defensive lines I’ve ever played with,” Matthews said Tuesday, four days before Auburn’s SEC Championship Game tilt with Georgia. “It’s crazy, because I thought there’d be a decline with [Carl Lawson] and [Montravius Adams] leaving, but I mean, it probably has risen a little bit more.”
Matthews is not alone. After losing two of its most productive defensive linemen of the past decade, Auburn is even more fierce up front, leading the way for a defense that ranks No. 6 nationally in yards allowed per play.
That line, led by top pass-rusher Jeff Holland, is also coming off two dominant performances in its final two SEC games — a 40-17 rout of Georgia and a 26-14 win over Alabama. Both of those teams were ranked No. 1 in the country coming into Jordan-Hare Stadium, and they left with losses.
Auburn’s defensive line had a lot to do with that.
“Everything we do starts and ends with the guys up front,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said this week. “Running and passing, everything we do … they affect the quarterback, they have the ability to command double teams and the ability to get off blocks and make tackles. They have the ability to affect the run game on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”
In its first meeting against Georgia, Auburn’s defensive line was responsible for 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and plenty of hits on freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. The Georgia quarterback finished with a 38.9 completion percentage against Auburn’s first-team defense.
Georgia’s all-star backfield of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel was stonewalled inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, as these numbers from SEC Country’s film review of the game showed:
These rushing numbers by direction came against a Georgia all-star running game that averaged 5.8 yards per carry heading into the game.
- LEFT: 9 carries for 29 yards (3.2 per carry)
- MIDDLE: 13 for 27 (2.1 yards per carry)
- RIGHT: 2 for 4 (2 yards per carry)
On the ground, Auburn completely shut down Georgia’s attempts to run the ball up the middle, and that completely changed how the Bulldogs tried to attack after the first few drives.
- 11 carries on first 3 drives: 9 up the middle (26 yards), 2 on the outside
- 13 carries on the next 11 drives: 4 up the middle (1 yard), 9 on the outside
Against Alabama, Auburn’s defensive line only had 1 sack and 2 tackles for loss. But it hurried Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts 9 different times and kept him from breaking a long run. Hurts finished the day with just 112 passing yards.
According to Steele, Auburn was able to put that kind of heat on Hurts without relying on the blitz.
“We affected the quarterback with a four-man rush pretty much the whole game,” Steele said. “We only called two pressures on him on passing downs. Two pressures.”
In a conference that is defined by elite play in the trenches, Auburn’s defensive line has set the standard several times in double-digit wins.
“I go against them every day in practice, and they’re by far the best I’ve gone against,” senior offensive lineman Austin Golson said. “I know Alabama and LSU’s and Georgia’s and Clemson’s are all really, really good, too. But there’s no question our defensive line is up there right with them.”
One of Auburn’s biggest advantages on the defensive front has been its depth.
Against Alabama, backups Nick Coe and Andrew Williams had the most tackles. Freshman T.D. Moultry has emerged as a formidable reserve for Holland at Buck, the hybrid defensive end-linebacker position. Up the middle, Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell have been responsible for 20 run stuffs this season, according to Football Study Hall.
“These guys are amazing,” Matthews said. “They’re great. They’re very fast to be so big, like Marlon Davidson, Jeff Holland, the interior with Derrick Brown and Dontavius, they’re second to none. They’re so big and can clog up any gaps.”
Auburn took control of the line of scrimmage the first time against Georgia with a performance Steele said he would never forget. The Bulldogs will be fueled by both revenge and the chance at a College Football Playoff berth to reverse that, which is something Auburn’s coaches have in the front of their minds.
“They’ve been controlling the line of scrimmage, and we’re going to have to continue to do that,” Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “The reality is we played very well the first time we played these guys, but they’re still one of the better rushing teams in all of college football.
“If you can control the line of scrimmage and put pressure on the quarterback, that’s as good as it gets. We’re going to have to do that again this week because they’re very, very talented.”