- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- In 2012, the Auburn defense gave up 35 or more points in four of their last five SEC games. The Tigers were in the bottom half of the conference in most statistical categories, including total defense, sacks and interceptions. There was clearly a need for change, and the Tigers turned to some new faces, including renowned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, to fix it.
Through two quarters Saturday, however, it looked as if Auburn’s defense still had its issues. Washington State racked up 264 yards through the air and 21 points.
But after halftime, the AU defense clamped down. They still gave up yards to the Cougars, but they made stops when they had to, including a late interception from Robenson Therezie, and they held the potent air-raid offense to just three points. The end result was a much-needed victory, specifically for the players who were on the team last year.
“It felt great,” defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “It's been feeling great ever since the new coaching staff came in. It kind of gave us a new spirit, a new life. It felt good to see that produce us a win. It made us feel like, 'Alright, we're going at it the right way." It is something that we needed.”
Johnson knows as much as anybody how important a win like that can be to start the season. He was 0-12 last year as head coach at Southern Miss. What if Auburn had made a mistake here or there and lost the game? Would this defense revert back to old form?
“That was the most important thing that happened, in my opinion the whole night, is that when we had a chance to slip, we didn't,” Johnson said. “They stood right in there, played hard, finished the game and got it done. Obviously, they've had a problem doing that in the past.”
On Monday, Therezie was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, an honor he earned with an outstanding performance, but when the Tigers needed a spark in the second quarter, they turned to true freshman Montravius Adams, the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school.
On the first play of his college career, Adams burst into the backfield and sacked the quarterback.
“I was very excited,” Adams said. “I wanted to get the team together, so me making that big play helped the team. We all came together, and I think we started clicking a lot better.”
Before the sack, Washington State had scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives, but after the play, they never reached the end zone again.
Adams wasn’t the only freshman to make an impact for Auburn’s defense on Saturday. Johnson said there were times where he saw five freshmen on the field at the same time. The most notable were the three on the defensive line -- Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who rotated in throughout the game.
The trio struggled at times with various assignments, but physically looked the part.
“When they get on the field, they look like they belong on the field,” Johnson said. “They're 18-year-old freshmen playing in the SEC, but they look like they fit right in. As time goes on, they get more comfortable in our scheme and start eliminating the mental errors, I think they'll really be a lot better and be more of a contribution.”
One of the keys for the freshmen is that they weren’t at Auburn last year. They didn’t have to go through a difficult and trying season without an SEC victory. They’re all used to winning games at the high school level, so it was no different when they won this past Saturday.
“We sang the fight song when all got to the locker room,” Adams said. “Everybody was just happy. It was a great way to kick off the season and set the tone for next week.”
But for the players who were on last year’s team, the win meant even more. The freshman might have been the spark, but now the rest of the unit has more confidence going into the rest of the season.
“A win, regardless of when it comes or how you get it, it always gives you confidence and faith for the future,” Owens said.
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf