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Auburn’s defense ready for Missouri’s challenge

Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead and the Tigers defense are allowing an average of 22.5 points and 414.2 yards per game entering Saturday’s SEC championship game against Missouri. (Reuters)

Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead and the Tigers defense are allowing an average of 22.5 points and 414.2 yards per game entering Saturday’s SEC championship game against Missouri. (Reuters)

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said he will never forget sitting at home last Christmas after the Tigers didn’t come close to qualifying for a bowl.

That’s why this year is so much sweeter.

Last year’s 3-9 record has been replaced by an 11-1 mark, a few miracle finishes that will never be forgotten and an opportunity to take on Missouri in the SEC Championship game on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. The winner will have an outside shot at making it to the BCS Championship game.

“For me and the rest of the seniors it means a lot,” he said. “We are going to do whatever we have to do to get better every single day in practice.”

It’s been a strange saga for Eguae.

He started 11 games in 2010, when Auburn won the BCS championship, totaling 22 tackles with 3 1/2 sacks. He built on that with 13 starts in 2011, adding 38 more tackles, second-most of the linemen.

But he missed the 2012 spring while recovering from injury and started only seven games that season.

Gene Chizik was fired after the disastrous 2012 season and new coach Gus Malzahn brought in a new coordinator, Ellis Johnson. He moved the 270-pound Eguae from defensive end, where he played the previous three seasons, to defensive tackle after the 35-21 loss at LSU in the fourth game. Eguae and the rest of the defense are doing enough to give the Tigers a chance to win games in the fourth quarter.

The Tigers have allowed an average of 22.5 points (fifth-best in SEC and the school’s best since allowing 17.6 in 2008) and 414.2 yards per game, compared with the averages of 28.3 points and 420.5 points per game allowed last season.

“From what I’ve gotten, they don’t do too many things to try to trick you,” Missouri quarterback James Franklin said. “They line up, run their basic things and they do a really good job at it.”

The attack starts with a defensive line that alternates several players, including freshman Carl Lawson, a Milton High graduate who has three sacks this season.

Eguae said the depth allows each player to stay fresh and go hard on every play. The group, which features at least 13 players, has combined for 23 of the team’s 25 sacks. The group has 55 tackles for loss, compared to 33.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks it had last year.

Perhaps the biggest play and best example of fresh legs came against Alabama, and Eguae was able to generate enough of a push to get close enough to reach up and block Cade Foster’s 44-yard field-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter of last week’s Iron Bowl.

“Our defensive line has gotten better each practice, each game,” Malzahn said. “Coach (Rodney) Garner has a lot of guys rotating in. He keeps them fresh, and that’s been a big key to our success also, our front four on defense.”

Instead of their reduced playing time breeding resentment, Eguae said it has built a greater sense of camaraderie.

“Up front, we are playing for each other,” he said.

Still, they will have their hands full trying to slow Franklin and the Tigers, whose offense is similar to Auburn’s. Missouri, like Texas A&M, Ole Miss and a lot of other schools, likes to play fast. It likes to run the option and spread defenses to create matchup problems.

Behind a powerful offensive line, Missouri has averaged 38.8 points and 489.5 yards per game. Both rank in the top four of the SEC’s leaders.

Eguae seems ready for the challenge.

Christmas should be a little bit better this year.

“This place is about big games,” he said. “That’s Auburn football.”