AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Auburn’s defense is ranked in the bottom half of the NCAA, giving up 443 yards per game. But yet, the Tigers have not allowed a touchdown since Washington State scored in the second quarter of game one. That’s six straight quarters and 19 straight possessions that Auburn has kept the opponent out of its end zone.
“We’ve got a lot of things we can improve on, but like I told the players, any time somebody doesn’t touch the end zone, you’ve done something right,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.
During Saturday’s victory, there was a point midway through the second quarter where Arkansas State had more yards and had nearly doubled the time of possession, yet trailed 14-3. The Red Wolves made it inside the AU 30 on each of their first three drives, but they were stopped on fourth down twice and had to settle for a field goal the other time.
Just like in game one, the Tigers’ defense stepped up and made plays when they needed to.
“We had an edge not to let them in the end zone going into the game,” linebacker Cassanova McKinzy 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.”
McKinzy, in particular, had a good game. The weakside linebacker didn’t play much in the opener because of personnel and schemes but finished with eight tackles and two quarterback hurries against Arkansas State.
LaDarius Owens also recorded eight tackles for Auburn, including two for a loss and one sack. In the second quarter, he chased down the quarterback and forced an incomplete pass on fourth down, a stop that killed a 14-play, 54-yard drive for the Red Wolves.
“It’s kind of a bend-not-break theorem,” Owens said. “We’re still in the early parts of the season, a few kinks we’ve got to correct, but it’s all about attitude. Whether you give up a big play, it’s next-play mentality. That’s what the defense is all about.
“We have to stick together through the good and bad times. We were able to stay strong in short yardage, fourth-and-short and dealing with them getting in our red zone.”
Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator has been around the game for a long time, but it’s been awhile since he’s heard the bend-don’t-break philosophy.
“If somebody coaches that way anymore, I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard all that. A lot of people like if you blitz a lot or do you not blitz a lot -- not blitzing is bend, don’t break. I think I was in the third grade when that term started and as you can see, I’m pretty old.
“We certainly don’t have a philosophy where each series we say, ‘We want to give up 50 yards guys but don’t give up a touchdown.’”
Ideally, the defense would like to get off the field in three plays or less, but for Auburn, the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy has worked to this point. On the flip side, it’s also helped mask some of the team’s weaknesses early in the season, including missed tackles and third down stops, but the Tigers are still 2-0 through the first two games.