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October 9, 2013
AUBURN | The last time an Auburn defensive line dominated a game the way the Tigers' unit did against previously ranked Ole Miss was 2005.
In the season finale that season, Auburn blew past Alabama for 11 sacks. That was the last time an Auburn defense blistered an opposing quarterback the way they did last Saturday night, this time to the tune of six sacks, including back-to-back sacks to end the Rebels' threat and finalize the outcome, a 30-22 win.
"They were playing fast," head coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday. "They played in the backfield a lot of the night. I thought that it was a big key to the game. We got our crowd involved, and our crowd was unbelievable. They helped us win that game. A lot of it had to do with our defense giving them something to cheer about."
It wasn't simply sacks. The Tigers also racked up 14 tackles for loss, the most since Auburn recorded 14 against Kentucky in 2004.
The much maligned group over the past two seasons has undoubtedly shown improvement under the direction of new defensive line coach Rodney Garner.
In 2012, Auburn recorded 66 tackles for loss (33.5 from the defensive line) and 22 sacks. In 2013 (five games), Auburn's already notched 42 tackles for loss (29 from the defensive line) and 12 sacks.
The Tigers have even shaved 35 yards per game off their rush defense total from a season ago.
In 2009, 2011 and 2012, Auburn allowed more tackles for loss than the defense recorded. The exception was 2010, when NFL first-round draft pick Nick Fairley and late-round pick Zach Clayton manned the middle. That unit notched 99 tackles for loss, 68 by the defensive line.
This year's group is on pace to surpass that. If Garner's group builds on their most recent successes and continues their upward trajectory, they would record 101 tackles for loss, 69 by the defensive line by season's end.
"We've been trying to bring it the whole season," junior Gabe Wright said. "This was our best game. It's been the least angry Coach Garner has been on the bench. He was real proud of us of course, but I'm proud of my teammates. It was a different feel, a different vibe."
Garner deserves much of the credit. The hard-nosed, straight-talking coach has brought energy to his alma mater.
"He's an honest coach," said Wright. "He'll pat you on the back when you're doing well, he'll be a coach when you're doing bad. He wants us to do well, he tells us that all the time. He was most proud of us coming in Sunday watching film."
The move of former end Nosa Eguae to defensive tackle last week added speed to the line, while Ladarius Owens moved from linebacker to end during fall camp. Last year's sack leader, senior Dee Ford, is returning from injury and looked healthy against Ole Miss with three tackles for loss and two sacks.
All positive signs.
But, there might not be a player that's shown more improvement than Wright. Entering this season, Wright had two career sacks and 7.5 career tackles for loss.
Through five games this season, Wright has matched his career total in sacks with two, and has notched 6.5 tackles for loss.
Quite a step forward.
"(Against Ole Miss) I really feel like Gabe had his best game of the season," said Malzahn. "He's doing what Coach Garner asks. He's doing a good job with run picks up front, and he did a good job with the pressure when they were passing up front, too. So he had his best overall game."
Joining Wright in the backfield much of the night against the Rebels was true freshman defensive end Carl Lawson. The former five-star recruit and nation's No. 4 overall prospect in the 2013 class is maturing.
Lawson's six tackle, 3.5 tackle for loss and two sack performance against Ole Miss five-star freshman offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil was impressive, earning him SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
"He plays extremely hard," Malzahn said. "College football is a different game than high school, and it took him a couple of weeks to get everything down. The last few weeks he's been improving. Coach Garner has had a good plan for him. He just turned loose and played his best game. It was a very complete game; not just rushing the passer, but the run. If he keeps improving, he has a chance to be a really good player."
"We knew those guys could come in and be impact players. That's why we recruited them. It's just a blessing to be able to say I had a hand in that recruiting. I would definitely put my name on 'Mon', Carl and Elijah," Wright said. "They had slow falls, but for those guys to be freshmen and have the mental attitude of a senior, to be able to stay in that playbook and work in the weight room it gives me a high level of respect for them being an upperclassman and seeing those guys perform on Saturdays."
The only real setback suffered has been the announced loss of senior Jeffrey Whitaker, who injured his knee during the preseason and has decided to redshirt this season and return in 2014.
Auburn faces Western Carolina for Homecoming this Saturday. Following a breakout game from the Tigers' defensive line, a letdown would be easy, but Wright and Co. aren't playing host to those ideas with Texas A&M in two weeks.
"Since the spring, 'It's a new day. Do it together'," said Wright. "Coming off a 3-9 season, there's not much you can do but work on yourself so worrying about the opponent, that's one of the least things we've been worrying about all year, to be honest. We're going to treat this next opponent as a chance to build ourselves."