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Auburn football: Tigers' defensive line and linebackers bounce back after lackluster showing in opener

AUBURN, Ala. — What a difference a week makes.

In Auburn’s season opener against Washington State, only one area of the Tigers’ defense didn’t disappoint: the secondary. Thanks to three interceptions, two by “Star” Robenson Therezie and one by safety Josh Holsey, Auburn’s defensive backs were a bright spot in the 31-24 victory. The six players in front of them in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme, meanwhile, barely registered on anyone’s radar.

That all changed last Saturday against Arkansas State, with both units putting together bounce-back efforts.

After tallying only five total tackles against the Cougars, the linebackers totaled 23 versus the Red Wolves, led by Cassanova McKinzy’s eight.

“Our main focus was to not let them come into Jordan-Hare and run the ball,” said McKinzy, as Auburn held Arkansas State to 150 yards rushing one week after it finished with 509. “I think the whole unit did awesome. We had our issues, but that is what practice is for. We will come in and fix it.”

The Tigers' rushing defense was even more impressive considering the Red Wolves’ depth at running back. In Arkansas State’s 62-11 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Week 1, the Red Wolves had four different players run for 100 or more yards. Their top rusher Saturday was quarterback Adam Kennedy, who had 74 yards on 12 carries. It was a flip-flop in philosophy from what the Tigers saw against the pass-happy Cougars.

But the Tigers had no issues adapting, which pleased their head coach.

“We played a team that throws it just about every down and then we went to one of the better running teams,” Gus Malzahn said. “It was good for our defense to be able to adjust like we did.”

Similarly, the defensive line stepped up its play when it took the field against Arkansas State. The unit took heat for its inability to get into the Cougars’ backfield, and the stats bear it out: Auburn’s front four collected just five tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries.

Last Saturday, the Tigers’ linemen had 8.5 tackles for loss, and nearly tripled their quarterback hurries tally, accumulating 22.

“We’re just a lot better,” junior tackle Angelo Blackson said. “We were more (of a) technique-sounded unit. We came off the ball faster, but we still have some things to work on. We are on the rise, though.”

No player made more progress from game-to-game than end LaDarius Owens. He struggled against Washington State, making just two tackles in his first career start. That lackluster showing was far behind him Saturday, as the junior rang up a career-high eight takedowns (one and a half for loss) and added a sack for good measure.

“It was great,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve come a long way. I’ve just been doing what the coaches have asked me to do. I moved back to defensive end in the middle of (fall) camp, so I took it and ran with it. Thankfully I was able to make a lot of plays today.”

The improved play of the front six helped Auburn keep Arkansas State out of the end zone. It marked the first time the Tigers held an opponent without a touchdown since Oct. 15, 2011, when they beat the Florida Gators 17-6. Not putting six points on the board was an unfamiliar feeling for Arkansas State as well. The last time the Red Wolves didn’t score a touchdown in a game came in 2008, when they were shut out by Alabama 35-0.

Even with the knowledge he had on his former team, Malzahn was surprised at the accomplishment.

“They have phenomenal skill guys that will have the chance to play at the next level,” he said. “ And, like I said they had the second longest winning streak in college football, so they are used to winning. I am very impressed.”

Knowing they didn’t play up to expectations in the season opener, McKinzy said Saturday was a point of pride for the defense, especially amidst the talk coming into the game that Arkansas State might leave Jordan-Hare Stadium with a victory.

“We had an edge not to let them in the end zone,” he said. “Like Coach Johnson says, ‘When you face a team, you don’t let them in your end zone.’ It has nothing to do with the play calling. It was the heart of all the guys on the field. I feel like we just had an edge. We were just playing like a brand new team.”

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