AUBURN — Sean Lewis has woken up more than once during the past few nights with nightmares about Auburn’s defensive line racing through his head.
“My wife’s got to calm me down because I’m yelling out, ‘Derrick Brown!’ and I’m yelling out, ‘Big Kat!’ and all these guys who are just really, really good football players,” the Kent State head coach said Monday in advance of his team’s trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN2).
Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But when it comes to the talent of Brown, Big Kat Bryant, Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe and Tyrone Truesdell, among others, Lewis is being very serious: That group comes together to make up “as good of a front four as I’ve ever seen,” he said.
If you look at the “sacks” column of the stat sheet through two games, you might say that group has not lived up to its lofty potential so far this season. The Tigers have only three as a team, with all of them coming Week 1 against Oregon. Only 16 FBS teams that have played at least two games have fewer.
Only one of those sacks has come from the defensive line, too — Bryant and Truesdell have a half-sack each. Safety Jeremiah Dinson has the only full sack, and linebackers K.J. Britt and Zakoby McClain also have a half-sack each.
Last season, Auburn ranked 16th nationally with 38 sacks, including seven from Coe, 4½ from Brown and 3½ each from Bryant and Davidson.
Sacks don’t tell anywhere near the whole story for a defensive line. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find plenty of evidence that supports Lewis’ fears about going up against the Tigers’ defensive line.
“I feel like we affected the quarterback a lot today,” Davidson said after Auburn’s 24-6 win over Tulane this past Saturday. “We didn’t get the sacks we really wanted, but on the record books, I know we got a lot of pressures and knockdowns.”
Excluding three trick plays (two wide receiver passes and a jump pass on a bootleg to the left that was intercepted by Dinson), Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan dropped back to pass 36 times Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn was credited with four “hurries” (defined as either forcing a quarterback to throw the ball under pressure or scramble), but that’s an inconsistent stat — the NCAA doesn’t count it among its official statistics, and not all teams even keep track.
Looking back at the film from Saturday’s game, Auburn pressured McMillan to throw early, throw off-balance or escape the pocket 12 times, or on exactly one-third of his dropbacks. The LSU transfer is athletic enough that he was able to avoid hits and stay on his feet throughout the night — he wound up rushing seven times for a team-high 54 yards — but he completed only 10 of 33 passes for 103 yards.
McMillan had completed 55.2 percent of his passes and averaged 186.7 yards and more than a touchdown per game over the past seven as Tulane’s starting quarterback coming into Saturday. He was sacked only seven times in those games.
“You had to stay committed to the rush lane, because even when you think he wants to run outside, he’ll come right back up the middle,” Brown said. “He’s very elusive back there, so we had to be able to chase that down and be able to just fly to the ball.”
Auburn did exactly that. The Green Wave finished the game with just 223 total yards on 64 plays, which is an average of 3.5 yards per play. They had only two drives of at least 40 yards (both of which resulted in field goals) and none longer than 50.
That’s obviously an improvement from a 27-21 victory in Week 1, where a ranked Oregon team totaled 332 yards on 70 plays (4.7 average) and put together three touchdown drives of more than 50 yards, but the Tigers’ defensive front was a significant factor in that game, too.
Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert — a first-round NFL draft prospect — completed 28 of 37 passes for 242 yards, but 10 of those attempts were quick throws to receivers behind the line of scrimmage, clearly an effort to negate the pass rush.
Still, Auburn pressured Herbert in the pocket 16 times, forced him to scramble out of the pocket on three of those instances and sacked him three times. He completed passes of 47 and 20 yards in the first quarter, then only one of more than 15 yards over the final three. Twenty-one of his 28 completions covered fewer than 10 yards.
Bryant and Truesdell combined for their sack of Herbert on second-and-7 with 2:30 left to play, which led to the punt that set up what proved to be Auburn’s game-winning drive.
“A lot of things we were doing, they kind of picked up on the screens and their run-pass,” Bryant said. “We kind of caught onto it and just out-worked them.”
Through two games, Auburn ranks 15th nationally holding opponents to 4.9 yards a pass attempt, with only four of the 38 completions it has allowed covering 20 or more yards. A standout secondary deserves plenty of credit, but the pass rush from the defensive line has been a factor, too.
That group has also been stout against the run, ranking 18th nationally holding opponents to 1.95 “line yards” per carry — a stat Football Outsiders defines as an attempt to “separate the ability of the running back from the ability of the offensive line.” It ranks 47th holding opponents to 3.3 standard yards per rush.
Davidson is the reigning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after he recorded six tackles, three quarterback hurries and two tackles for loss against Tulane on Saturday.
All of that is positive. Still, the senior wouldn’t mind seeing himself and the rest of the defensive line rack up a few more sacks going forward. Saturday against Kent State (the team’s final game before the start of SEC play the following week at Texas A&M) would be a good place to start — Lewis’ team ranks 101st nationally having given up six through two games this season.
“I feel like, as a defensive line, we are getting to the quarterback,” Davidson said. “We just have to finish and get more sacks instead of knockdowns and pressures. I feel like we’ve got to take that next step of getting to him and affecting him more that way. Even though we’re still in his head and clogging up his vision, it’s different about sacks.”