Auburn’s defense has been the object of well-deserved scorn this season from the team’s fan base.
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp hasn’t even objected to the criticism, and piled on himself at times.
The Tigers look overwhelmed for long stretches as they did again Thursday night against Kentucky when the group gave up a season high 497 total yards of offense.
But the embattled group’s resilience overshadowed their struggles when the game at Commonwealth Stadium was on the line.
Auburn made a stand at its own 44-yard line with Kentucky facing a third-and-three, and trailing 30-27.
Quarterback Patrick Towles tried to hit wide receiver Jeff Badet with a deep pass down the Wildcats’ sideline at the 5-yard line. Jonathan Jones was in single coverage, and blanketed Badet to break up the catch.
“I thought we had a good chance to complete that pass right down to the on the third down to Jeff Badet down the boundary and Jeff went up and was fighting to make a heck of a play and their DB made a heck of a play as well to strip it,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “I think right at the very end at the bottom of that route as they were coming down to the ground he got it out.”
On fourth down, Towles stepped back to throw, but was flushed out of the pocket to his left by DaVonte Lambert. The junior hesitated before trying to run for the first down.
He was driven backwards at the line of scrimmage by Auburn linebacker Justin Garrett for a loss of two yards.
“Coach said that it would come down to us (the defense) in the very end, we didn’t play too well the first three quarters, but we knew we had to seal the game,” Garrett said. “That’s the only thing that matters winning an SEC game on the road.”
It was an important moment for a Tigers defense that openly acknowledges it isn’t playing up to their own expectations.
“Very inconsistent, very tough-minded,” linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said, when asked to describe the defense. “But nobody is tapping their head, we are standing there fighting.”
McKinzy said coach Gus Malzahn’s decision to punt on a fourth and one at midfield late in the game gave the defense a much-needed emotional lift.
“We knew the offense trusted us enough to punt the ball off instead of going for it,” McKinzy said. “By them putting their trust in us it gave us a lot of momentum.”
Malzahn understands the defense will face more criticism for failing to address key issues during the bye week -- getting off the field on third downs, allowing too many explosive plays and the lack of a consistent pass rush -- but he sees room for optimism with the way Auburn finished the game.
“I think what really stands out to me is when the game is on the line and you need your defense to respond, they did,” Malzahn said. “They won the game for us on that last drive.”