Mark Edwards: Defense when it matters wins for AU
by Mark Edwards
Jan 03, 2014 | 1511 views |  0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ellis Johnson's Auburn defense has struggled often but shined when it has mattered most. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Ellis Johnson's Auburn defense has struggled often but shined when it has mattered most. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn ranks 12th in the Southeastern Conference in total defense, but the Tigers ran down Johnny Manziel when it mattered.

Auburn was 10th against the run, but stopped Alabama's power rushing game when it mattered.

The Prayer at Jordan-Hare accounted for the winning points against Georgia, but it was Auburn's battered defense that kept the SEC's all-time leading passer, Aaron Murray, out of the end zone to clinch the win. Never mind that the Tigers ranked as the league's worst passing defense this season. Auburn held tight when it mattered.

Defense wins championships, but for the sake of Auburn, maybe we should edit that old saying to say defense at the most critical times wins championships. That's a big reason the Tigers have earned a trip out West for Monday's BCS National Championship Game against Florida State.

"The whole thing has sort of confounded me," said Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who also has served in the same capacity at Alabama, South Carolina, Clemson and Mississippi State. "I coached defenses that were extremely dominant, making plays at big times, and they looked sexy in the stats. ... I have coached defenses that were not real good. May make a play here or there to help your team, and that's it.

"This bunch has been different."

Statistics really don't tell the whole story with this Auburn defense.

Auburn has managed to shut out an opponent in only 15 quarters this year in 13 games, but seven times it was the fourth period.

The Tigers got shelled by Missouri, but they didn't allow a point in the fourth quarter of a 59-42 win. It was 45-42 going into the final period, and Missouri had just scored. But in the fourth quarter, Auburn shut down three drives, including twice by halting fourth-down plays.

Texas A&M hammered Auburn's defense, too, but lost 45-41 because the Aggies couldn't slice into the Tigers on their last possession. A Johnny Manziel pass into the end zone was broken up by Jermaine Whitehead. Dee Ford sacked Manziel on fourth down.

Ford also hurried Murray into an incomplete pass to clinch a 43-38 win over Georgia.

Alabama had two chances to stretch a seven-point lead against Auburn. The Tide had third-and-two at the Auburn 17 but wound up having to attempt a field goal, which Auburn blocked. Later, the Tigers held on third-and-one and fourth-and-one at their own 13.

Auburn won 34-28, with Chris Davis' touchdown return dominating the highlights.

So why does Auburn give up so many yards and points, except when it matters most?

Auburn has struggled at times as it has implemented Johnson's new 4-2-5 system. He is the Tigers' third defensive coordinator in three years, and each one had a different system he wanted his players to master.

Also, college offenses have caught up. Auburn's defense isn't the only one that has had its woes. Opponents have had even more trouble trying to slow down Auburn's offense.

As for the fourth quarter, Auburn may benefit from Johnson playing a lot of players, especially up front in the four defensive line positions and two linebacker spots. Auburn has 14 different linemen or linebackers who have made at least 11 tackles this season.

"Up front, we've rotated a lot of players," Johnson said, "and that's helped us be a better fourth-quarter team."

Against Florida State, which is good at scoring a lot early, Auburn might have to move up that timetable. But if it's tight in the fourth quarter, this defense can win a championship.

Contact Anniston Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards at medwards@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter at @MarkSportsStar.
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