AUBURN, Ala. — Gabe Wright racked his brain.
Try as he might, the junior couldn’t come up with an answer to the last time Auburn’s defensive line looked as good as it did Saturday night versus Ole Miss. Of course, that’s because it was many years before he became a Tiger. The Tigers notched six sacks against the Rebels, the most since they took down Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle 11 times in 2005.
And much to Wright’s delight, all six of the sacks came from Auburn’s linemen.
“I feel like the pressure has been out on us by our coaches that it was time we stepped up,” said the Carver alum, who had two of the Tigers’ sacks, which matched the number he had for his career entering Saturday. “In the LSU loss, we felt like the defensive line could have stepped up. I feel like we took a step forward tonight, and will keep improving through the course of the year.”
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Wright wasn’t the only experienced member of the line to up his level of play Saturday. Dee Ford, who led all returning Tigers with six sacks last year, got his first two of 2013 against the Rebels.
“It felt good,” he said. “I just had to get that first one to get rolling.”
The senior would likely have had his first sack of the season far earlier if not for injuries. However, an ankle injury he suffered in fall camp forced him to sit out Auburn’s first two games of the year. But each week since then, Ford has continued to improve, both physically and in production.
And after Saturday’s contest, he admitted he’s creeping ever closer to optimum health.
Just don’t ask him to put a number on it.
“It’s more of a feeling inside,” he said. “I really can’t say a percentage. I’m definitely not limping around. I’m just going to get working to get my explosion back. I’m definitely at a point where I can help the team right now.”
And coming to the aid of the secondary was the line’s aim Saturday, Wright said.
“I know guys may pick on the defensive backs, but as a whole it's our job to help them up front," he said. "If they don't get a pass off then no passes are complete. That's the best defense: a pass rush. (Defensive coordinator) Coach (Ellis) Johnson and (defensive line) ‘Coach G’ (Rodney Garner) have been stressing that.”
In fact, Auburn’s defensive line was so good that the team’s top tackler ceded all credit to them. Linebacker Anthony Swain collected eight tackles, but said he was only making do when the line left opportunities for other Auburn defenders to get in the stat book.
“They were pushing people around and making sacks,” he said. “I was just filling in when needed.”
Gus Malzahn didn’t try to downplay the importance of the line’s emergence Saturday night, especially since the Tigers view it as one of their strengths.
“We play a lot of guys, and there were some big plays when we needed it in the fourth quarter,” Auburn’s head coach said. “Putting pressure on the quarterback, that was huge.”
Malzahn’s counterpart — and good friend on the opposite sideline — made no excuses for the play of his offensive line. Time and again, Hugh Freeze said the Rebels simply got beat up front.
“We lost a lot of one on ones. When you feel like you have to abandon the run a little bit, they certainly can tee off (on the quarterback) and that happened a lot,” he said. “We certainly feel like we got beat quite a few times. The thing that is disappointing is that not only did you get beat, but you got beat quick off the ball and there is nothing that you can really do with the football.”
Wright knows the challenge now facing the defensive line: to string together more outings like Saturday as the season progresses.
Even so, he took a chance to revel in the line’s standout performance Saturday — for one day, at least.
“I feel like as a whole we stepped up,” he said. “I couldn't be prouder of the guys."