There were some bumps in the road, but for 30 minutes first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was worth every penny of the $1.6 million Auburn spent to bring him aboard the Tigers’ coaching staff.
Muschamp promised to install a defense that would play “fast, and physical,” and the group lived up to those expectations early in a 31-24 win over Louisville.
Linebacker Justin Garrett said a punishing training camp under their new coach had the defense ready to let loose, and swarm Louisville's quarterbacks.
“We practice so hard going against each other, to go against somebody else it was a good feeling, a sigh of relief,” Garrett said, with a smile. “With how hard we go, and how at it coach Muschamp is with us, it was good to go out there and play against somebody else just to relieve some stress.”
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Auburn set the tone on the first play from scrimmage when Carl Lawson reintroduced himself to CBS’ national audience by bursting through the offensive line.
He flushed quarterback Lamar Jackson from the pocket, and his thundering footsteps forced the freshman to try to get rid of the ball downfield.
It proved to be a poor decision with Auburn safety Tray Matthews the only person in the area.
Lawson would make his presence felt throughout the half as he stopped a pair of rushing attempts in the first quarter for a loss, and had a hand in bringing down quarterback Reggie Bonnafon twice in the second quarter.
It wasn’t just the sheer number of plays Muschamp’s defense made; although there were plenty -- what was impressive was all the different players making them.
“We were harassing their quarterback in the first half, and our defense played outstanding,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Seven different players went into halftime with at least one sack, or tackle for loss, and that doesn’t even include the key play from Montravius Adams that set up Garrett’s 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Adams reached the backfield before Bonnafon could complete a handoff exchange with his running back deep in Auburn territory. While Adams didn’t knock the ball loose, his presence caused Bonnafon to drop the football.
Garrett scooped the ball into his arms, and burst up the field with a group of blue jerseys in tow.
The play was the longest fumble return for a touchdown in program history.
Garrett, Adams, Dontavius Russell, Devaroe Lawrence, Kris Forst and Cassanova McKinzy all took turns disrupting Louisville’s offense.
In the second half, the Cardinals made the decision to go with true freshman Lamar Jackson at quarterback as a more mobile option to deal with the pressure.
“We were having a hard time protecting,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “They were getting pressure on us, and he would give us the best opportunity to move the ball, and he certainly did that.”
Louisville scored on all four drives in the second half with Jackson under center. The Cardinals had 264 total yards in the second half with Jackson accounting for 163 of it (86 rushing, 77 passing) to bring his team back within one possession.
While Auburn game planned for all four quarterbacks competing for Louisville’s starting job, Garrett said Jackson was even faster, and more athletic than they anticipated.
“We didn’t quite know he could make plays like that,” Garrett said.
Garrett promised the defense would get better, and use the mistakes made down the stretch to improve.
“The game is 60 minutes, four quarters, we have to make those corrections, leverage the football and do a lot of things better,” Garrett said.