AUBURN, Ala. — Deshaun Davis couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
The sophomore linebacker and the rest of Auburn’s defense was heading into a third-and-goal at their own 16-yard line and facing the best quarterback in the country, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Auburn was trailing 13-6 early in the fourth quarter, needing to keep the defending national runners-up out of the end zone.
Then the call came. Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele called an all-out blitz, sending both Davis and junior linebacker Tre’ Williams toward Watson along with safety Nick Ruffin. The rest of Auburn’s defensive backs would play straight man-to-man coverage with zero deep help — Cover 0.
“It surprised me — it was a very, very crucial third down, and he plays zero-man coverage, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?'” Davis recalled. “He blitzed everyone.”
Steele’s gamble didn’t work out for him. Watson had just enough time in the midst of relentless pressure to throw a pass toward Hunter Renfrow, who made a circus catch for a touchdown.
In the end, that late touchdown would be enough for Clemson to hang onto a narrow win in Week 1 of the 2016 season. And while the risky call from Steele failed to produce the desired result, it sent a powerful message to the defenders he inherited in his first season on the Plains.
“I’m not going to call games scared,” Steele said on the night after Auburn’s loss to Clemson. “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Well, what if?’ We called it. We pulled the sword out. We took a swing at it. It won’t be the last time.”
He was right. Steele’s aggressive nature in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Clemson served as a taste of what was to come three weeks later, when Auburn knocked off LSU at home in dramatic fashion.
Auburn was holding onto an 18-13 lead as LSU headed into what would be its final drive of the game. All the Tigers needed to do was keep Danny Etling and company out of the end zone. Some defensive coaches would’ve elected to drop back in prevent defense and fill every downfield hole in hopes of eliminating the big play.
That’s not Steele, though. On the 13 official plays LSU had on that chaotic final drive, Auburn blitzed 4 times — including another Cover 0 in the red zone. He dialed up another blitz on the second-to-last snap of the game, which was tossed out because of an illegal shift penalty.
Auburn’s defensive players took that as a sign of supreme trust from their new coordinator.
“He’s not afraid, and for us, that gives us confidence too,” Ruffin said. “As a defense you feel kind of more concerned when you have a coach that’s very, very conservative and you kind of feel like they don’t really have confidence in you.
“But as a secondary, more specifically, when your coach is dialing up full blitzes and leaving you man to man, he’s saying, ‘I have full confidence that you can cover any receiver in the country.'”
Auburn brought extra pressure to the quarterback on 10 of LSU’s 31 passing plays in Week 4. It was highly effective, too, especially in the fourth quarter.
FERG’S FILM ROOM: Full snap and blitz counts for Auburn’s defense vs. LSU
On Auburn’s last 5 blitzes of the game, LSU quarterback Danny Etling had 3 incompletions, a safety-valve pass to Leonard Fournette for two yards and a sack.
The pressure scrambled LSU’s offensive line. After running three straight blitzes in the final few plays of the game, Auburn sent just its front four and still got a crucial sack out of Carl Lawson.
Carl Lawson's clutch sack that forced LSU to burn its final timeout: Great jump, great speed on edge. LT had zero chance here. pic.twitter.com/dQUBEEngTb
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) September 26, 2016
After the game, Steele said he wanted to bring even more blitzes on Etling.
“To be honest with you, if we had a little bit more in our package and not over simplify the package you’d have seen more (blitzes),” Steele said Sunday. “There were two calls on there that you saw that really, I could call a pressure at that time. And we just had shown them both of those other two pressures that we had for that situation, which was not enough.”
All that pressure is bringing Auburn’s much-improved defense even closer together as the season continues. The connection between the coaching staff and the Auburn secondary, which has received a fair amount of criticism in the Gus Malzahn era, is stronger than ever.
“That’s very good,” Auburn defensive back Rudy Ford said. “We just trust our coach just like he trusts us. That’s big for us and for the team chemistry.”
So now when Davis — who was involved with 5 of Auburn’s 10 blitzes against LSU — sees the command to send extra bodies to the quarterback in late-game situations, he’s not surprised anymore.
“Coach Steele has a lot of confidence in our defense,” Davis said. “And whatever he calls, we’re going to go out and execute.”