AUBURN, Ala. — Improvement had to be expected from Auburn’s defense in 2016. But the season opener didn’t look like the place to showcase it, as No. 2 Clemson was rolling into town with its star-studded offense.
That didn’t matter to first-year coordinator Kevin Steele’s unit. They were ready to show things were going to be different this fall.
And what better way to make that statement than a nationally televised nail-biter against a Heisman frontrunner?
“We’re a really good defense — in all three stages, the d-line, linebackers and the secondary — we’re a really good defense,” senior defensive back Josh Holsey said following Auburn’s 19-13 loss to Clemson. “Going forward, people are going to notice that our defense is back, we’re back to playing Auburn defense. We’re going to be one of the best in the country, I can feel it. Our defense kind of knows that.”
Auburn’s defensive players talked up a turnaround all preseason and delivered on high expectations against Clemson. The visiting Tigers, which averaged 6.4 yards per play last season and 38.5 points per game en route to the national title game appearance, produced a 5.1-yards-per-snap clip and scored 19 points.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who became the first player in major college football history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards last season, looked like an average quarterback for most of the night. He threw a pick to Holsey and only gained 30 yards on 11 carries.
“We wanted to just keep him uncomfortable, really,” sophomore linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “We threw a lot of different defenses at him … any time you play a quarterback like that, you really want to keep him uncomfortable. I feel like we did that.”
Auburn’s defensive performance Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium didn’t feature many sacks and tackles for loss. Watson never went down behind the line of scrimmage. But two turnovers, a 6 of 17 rate on third-down conversions and a paltry 3.4 yards per carry told the story.
The Auburn defense entered the game with plenty of motivation. Much of the pre-game buzz focused on Auburn’s chances against a Clemson offense that returned the nation’s best quarterback, a star running back and seven of their top eight receivers from a season ago. But Clemson wideout Mike Williams, who returned from a neck injury that cost him almost all of 2016, turned in the only eye-popping performance with nine catches for 174 yards.
Even though the scoreboard was tilted in favor of Clemson when the clock hit all zeroes late Saturday, Auburn’s defense could take plenty of pride in the 19 that appeared under the visitors’ name.
“I think (people) learned that we got better on defense,” senior defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “We improved a lot. Everything they’ve been talking about is not really true. We’ve been working everyday at practice. When we get in the game, people are working, and it shows.”
The unit that set the tone for Auburn’s focused defense was none other than the one that entered 2016 with the most question marks — linebacker.
Auburn replaced several veterans from the position with youth in the form of Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams. The two made their first career starts, flanking junior Tre’ Williams at middle linebacker. The sophomores looked like the best players on the field for several stretches.
Auburn's D with a goal line stop. Deshaun Davis playing serious ball out there
— Bryan Matthews (@BMattAU) September 4, 2016
Davis recorded half a tackle for loss, two quarterback hurries and several tackles that resulted in third-down stops for Auburn. Williams forced a crucial fumble inside Auburn territory.
“A lot of people really doubted us because we’re young and don’t have much game experience,” Davis said. “But like (linebackers coach Travis Williams) always says, to get game experience, you actually have to get in the game. … I feel like we came out and played really well. We turned a lot of heads and let them know that the Auburn linebacking corps is back.”
By containing Clemson’s rushing attack and doing their part on passing downs, Auburn’s linebackers provided great energy to the entire defense and a rowdy Jordan-Hare Stadium. That led to a much-improved night of work for an often-questioned secondary and experienced defensive line.
“Guys can’t just sit back there,” Holsey said. “With a great linebacker corps also comes a great d-line. A great d-line makes everybody that much better. As our d-line (plays) great, our linebackers are also good, which makes the secondary that even better. We just all feed off of each other.”
After nearly acing a test from an offense that should be among the nation’s best in 2016, Auburn’s defense now turns to its next challenge — making sure the excellent play wasn’t just a one-game fluke.
“At the end of the day, I feel like we had a pretty good game at defense, and we’re only going to get better,” Adams said. “When we go to the next practice, we’re going to make our corrections and move on. The sky is the limit. If we can play like this against Clemson, I feel like we can do that against anybody else.”
Justin Ferguson is the Auburn beat writer for the AJC’s SEC Country. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.