AUBURN, Ala. — Leonard Fournette’s 2015 trampling of the Auburn defense provided all the motivation Gus Malzahn’s Tigers needed coming into their home matchup against LSU.
So, the extra inspiration they received in the second quarter — when linebacker Tre’ Williams was ejected for targeting LSU quarterback Danny Etling — was an added bonus.
When the junior linebacker jogged off of the field and headed toward the locker room, he was stopped twice — first by linebacker coach Travis Williams, who slapped him on the behind, and then by sophomore Deshaun Davis.
“I just told him I was going to have his back,” Davis said after the game. “I didn’t really put anything on my shoulders because we have depth at linebacker.”
Still, the image of seeing his childhood friend walking off the field fueled Davis’ performance for the rest of the first half and the game.
Auburn trailed 7-6 when Williams was ejected.
“I’m probably closer to him than anyone,” Davis said. “So, just to see him go out of the game like that, and I knew what this game meant to him because he was on the field last year. We kind of had a revenge mindset, so for him to go out, we just knew we had to do it for him. That was our mindset for the rest of the game.”
Sophomore Montavious Atkinson took the junior linebacker’s place and never appeared flustered by the pressure or the atmosphere in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The 6-foot-1 Atkinson played with confidence, making several big plays and required checks.
“Montavious Atkinson did a great job, came in and stepping in,” Davis said. “That’s the most reps he’s played all year, against a great football team. That’s not a game that you know, you just throw someone in and just expect them to do good. He really did great.”
After Williams’ ejection, last year’s meeting seemed to matter a little less — and Auburn’s coaching staff had a new message.
“They told us to do it for him (Williams),” Davis said. “So, for the rest of the game, every time we came to the sideline we were like, ‘We have a brother out.’ They didn’t let us forget that. Every time we came to the sideline they were like, ‘Do it for 30, do it for Tre’.’ We kept that chip on our shoulder for the rest of the game.”
As the rest of the game unfolded, Kevin Steele’s unit made several big third-down stops. Junior Carl Lawson wrapped up Etling in the last 30 seconds — a play that helped seal Auburn’s win. Yet, the ejection was perhaps the biggest key to the game.
“Yeah, I really do (feel like it was the turning point),” Davis said. “We were playing physical all game and really fast all game, but when that happened, it was the extra chip, that extra motivation. We wanted to come out and prove that we were going to play Auburn defense differently. Everyone was always talking about last year and what Leonard Fournette did last year so, we came in with a huge chip on our shoulder to silence all the critics. I feel like that’s what we did.”
It might also be one of the most significant plays as Auburn faces the rest of the its SEC schedule.
“It says a lot about our team,” Malzahn said. “Tre’ Williams is one of our leaders and for him not to be able to play is tough. We had a lot of new guys that got to play tonight and that will really help us with depth at that position moving forward.”