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Auburn and Alabama bring impressive defensive resumes into Iron Bowl

Auburn defensive tackle Dontavius Russell tackles an Alabama A&M's running back Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn defensive tackle Dontavius Russell tackles an Alabama A&M's running back Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn’s defense has closed the gap with its in-state rival.

The disparity between the two defenses will be the smallest it’s been in the Iron Bowl during Gus Malzahn’s tenure as coach.

“They’ve improved greatly from last season,” Malzahn said of his defense. “When we went into this season, we felt like this had the chance to be one of our better defenses, at least since I’ve been here.”

The defense’s resume going into Saturday’s regular season finale fits Malzahn’s prediction.

Auburn has the fourth ranked scoring defense in the country, limiting opponents to 14.3 points per game.

It’s one of the many categories — rushing defense, red zone defense, third down defense and total defense — where the Tigers rank in the top 20 nationally.

The program’s defense has risen from the ashes with a simple guiding philosophy this season.

“Ever since the Clemson game we've gotten better each week, and that was our goal,” Auburn linebacker Tre’ Williams said. “We weren't about the end of the season. We were really worried about getting better each game. Each game, we got better in some category. That was something we had to work toward. Coach Steele put a lot of emphasis on it.”

It culminated with a 55-0 win over Alabama A&M last week, the defense’s first shutout since 2008. The shutout win was a meaningful accomplishment for Auburn after falling shy of the goal in multiple games this season (ULM, Arkansas and Georgia).

Auburn’s strong run defense is at the center of the group’s improvement. After giving up four rushing touchdowns in the first three games, the Tigers haven’t allowed a touchdown on the ground since.

The eight-game streak is the longest such stretch since the 2003-04 season.

While Auburn is making great strides, it hasn’t knocked Alabama’s defense of its throne.

“It’s the best defense in college football,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I think that’s pretty obvious; statistically it’s proven. Their performance has proven that.”

Alabama is two games away from finishing the season with the best total defense in the SEC for the third time in four years.

The Crimson Tide’s defense might not be as historically great as it was in 2011 when it held opposing offenses to less than 10 points and 200 yards a game, but it can’t be dismissed from the conversation either thanks to an NFL-ready front seven with names like Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams.

“This may be the best pass-rushing unit since I’ve been playing Alabama,” Malzahn said. “They really do a good job, especially when they know it’s a pass situation, of harassing the quarterbacks. It’s been very impressive to see the amount of touchdowns that their defense has created, mostly off of their pass rush. It has been very impressive to watch.”

Alabama’s defense has scored nine times this season — four interception returns and five on fumble returns.

“You’ll see a defense every now and then get on a streak and get a couple games,” Lashlee said. “At one time, they had more touchdowns than half the offenses. There was some crazy stat five weeks into the season. It’s a credit to them for attacking and making plays and finding ways to finish plays.”

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra

Team

Auburn (SEC rank)

Alabama (SEC rank)

Passing defense (Yards/G)

216.8 (9th)

183.7 (2nd)

Rush defense (Yards/G)

117.73 (3rd)

68.91 (1st)

Total defense (Yards/G)

334.5 (4th)

252.6 (1st)

Scoring defense (Points/G)

14.3 (4th)

11.4 (1st)

Red zone defense (Score %)

66.67 (2nd)

82.35 (7th)

Sacks

25 (t-5th)

40 (1st)

Third down defense (Conversion %)

32.57 (3rd)

29.14 (1st)

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