ATLANTA -- For all the sour looks Auburn's football team might have received after a too-close-for-comfort opening win over Louisville, there's one thing the Tigers can hold their hats on: This defensive line will be much better than it was last year.
A line that produced just 12.5 sacks last year registered almost third of that total with four sacks in the first half of the Tigers' 31-24 win over Louisville. Right from the start, Auburn's defensive line made its presence known. Returning star Carl Lawson, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury, ripped through a double-team on the first play for scrimmage, sprinted after a frazzled Louisville quarterback, and forced an arrant pass into the hands of safety Tray Matthews.
Lawson, who was a part of two sacks, was a major pain in the Cardinals' side for most of the first half, but so was nose tackle Montravius Adams, who had a sack and influenced a fumble that was taken back 86 yards for a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Dontavius Russell didn't make any new Louisville friends after registering 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss in his first career start. DaVonte Lambert and freshman stud Byron Cowart set the edge well at times and directed a few plays to their teammates. And Devaroe Lawrence added a half sack to complete the defensive line's onslaught on the Cardinals in the first half
“They were playing in their backfield the majority of the first half and really disrupted the timing of not only the passing game but the running game," coach Gus Malzahn said. "That was really impressive.”
Yes, it was because the Cardinals had few answers for that front early. Louisville averaged 3.1 yards per carry in the first half and had 90 yards passing. Arguably the play of the game came in the second half when Adams burst through Louisville's offensive line immediately after the snap, grabbed quarterback Reggie Bonnafon's arm, causing him to drop the football. After a momentary scrum, linebacker Justin Garrett scooped up the ball and sprinted nearly the length of the field for a touchdown.
With how up-and-down Auburn's offense was, the defensive line played a major part in the Tigers leading 17-0 at the half.
“We knew our defensive line was going to give them problems," quarterback Jeremy Johnson said. "Those guys pretty much kept us in the game.”
But the line's second-half struggles highlights just how important the unit is to this defense. It had to deal with a hobbled Lawson, who missed the majority of the second half with a hip injury. I got fatigued with the fleet-footed Lamar Jackson, who the Tigers admit they didn't expect to see play, taking over for the starting Bonnafon.
Auburn surrendered 164 rushing yards -- including 86 to Jackson, who constantly broke containment -- in the second half. The secondary looked out of sync because the line couldn't get as much pressure on the Cardinals. The entire play of Auburn's defense in the second half was dictated by how its now fatigued and hurt defensive line was playing.
When Auburn's defensive line played well -- and it was great in the first half -- the Tigers' defense was near dominant. When it wavered in the second half, so did the defense as a whole.
If we learned anything from Auburn's win over Louisville, it's that this defense will only go as far as its robust line.
“That’s the strong suit to the defense," Garrett said. "They get after it every day. Coach always preaches to us, ‘Just do your job because our D-Line is going to go out and produce every day.'”