Kevin Steele was in the ear of Auburn’s defensive players all week, harping on one simple message.
“Jordan-Hare is our backyard, and we’re not going to let a true freshman quarterback come in and pick us apart,” nickelback Christian Tutt said of Steele’s memo.
Auburn wanted to make LSU freshman quarterback TJ Finley uncomfortable in his first career road game. It wanted to rattle the rookie, who was thrust into the role following Myles Brennan’s abdomen tear. It wanted to first take away the run, make LSU one-dimensional and then do something it hadn’t had a lot of success with this season — affect the quarterback.
Auburn did just that in its 48-11 win, racking up a season-high four sacks against LSU while adding another five credited hurries, forcing a fumble and pressuring Finley into a pair of interceptions in what was a dominant defensive effort from Steele and his unit.
“That was just the whole gameplan,” senior defensive end Big Kat Bryant said. “Our first couple of games, we couldn’t get no pressure on the quarterback, and today with a freshman quarterback coming in, that was a real big deal. I think we affected him pretty well with him throwing picks and really getting him off his groove. That was the whole deal going into this week.”
Auburn entered the week with just eight sacks on the season, as the team was 11th in the SEC and 75th nationally in sacks per game (1.6). Of those eight, half came from linebackers Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain — who were the only Tigers with multiple sacks through the first five games — as Auburn’s defensive line struggled to get a consistent pass rush through the first half of the schedule.
That fact was not lost on Pappoe and McClain, who bantered with their defensive linemen about their respective sack tallies.
“It’s competition, man,” Bryant said. “We push each other every day and it’s just all of us being competitive. From now on, we’re definitely fixing to change that number. From now on, I promise you that. All it is is competition, though. We’re just competitors, that’s all.”
The defensive linemen evened the playing field against LSU, accounting for all four of Auburn’s sacks against LSU. Sophomore Derick Hall recorded the first two sacks of his career, including a strip-sack of Finley in the second quarter that was recovered and returned for a touchdown by Tutt. T.D. Moultry got his first of the season late in the fourth quarter on LSU backup Max Johnson — who relieved Finley earlier in the fourth — while junior college transfer Marquis Burks got the first of his Auburn career on LSU’s final play of the game.
“We just got punched in the face,” LSU offensive lineman Liam Shanahan said. “We got absolutely killed… We just got embarrassed on a national state.”
The four sacks were the most by Auburn in a game this season and the team’s most since notching four in a loss at Florida 13 months ago — a span of 13 games.
“It meant everything to us,” Pappoe said. “We accepted the challenge and we went out and performed and put that on the field.”
It was the kind of performance from the pass-rush—particularly the defensive line, which more than doubled its season sack total on Saturday—that Auburn needed to kickstart the second half of its schedule. It was something Auburn can build upon as it heads into the bye week and readies for the final stretch of the season, which includes games at Mississippi State, at home against Tennessee, at No. 2 Alabama and at home against No. 7 Texas A&M.
“We’ve really worked extremely hard on that,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That’s been an emphasis, and we’ve improved. Their offensive line, I think, is a very solid offensive line, and for us to do it against them says a lot. I think we can continue that.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.