With all eyes focused on the long-awaited debut of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the production of the Tiger offense, it was the defense that stole the show Saturday night in Auburn’s 41-7 rout of Georgia Southern.
It was a historic night for the Auburn defense. The Tigers held Georgia Southern to 78 total yards of offense, the fewest since holding Ole Miss to nine yards 32 years ago, while also refusing to give up a single point. The one touchdown for the Eagles came off a fumble recovery in the first quarter.
“It says a lot about Kevin Steele, our defensive staff and our defensive players. I think they’ve got a chance to be an outstanding defense. They answered the bell,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “There was a lot of stress that went into that because there are many ways they can present the triple option to you and they know how to teach it.”
The Tigers held the Eagle offense to a whopping 0-15 on third down conversions.
“I don't know if I’ve ever seen that. That was real impressive,” Malzahn said. “Before we took our ones out, there weren’t a whole lot of yards. There weren’t a whole lot of yards, period. It was a very, very good defensive effort."
Georgia Southern’s lone red zone appearance came early in the fourth quarter but was halted on 4th and goal at the 4-yard-line when Darrell Williams stopped the attempted screen play behind the line before it had a chance to develop.
Linebackers Tre’ Williams and Jeff Holland led the way for the Tigers on defense. Williams had 10 tackles, which included two tackles-for-loss, two sacks and a quarterback hurry. Holland had five tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a sack.
“Tre’ Williams is a guy that’s raised his level. He was fierce out there,” Malzahn said. “(Holland) has been a guy that’s coming on and he’s taking ownership at that position. You can tell he’s just playing at a different level right now and that was good to see.”
The defensive front for the Tigers stymied the Eagles triple option all night due in large part to defensive ends Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe. Davidson’s health and conditioning were up in the air leading up to the season opener, but the Greenville native proved his well-being and turned in a determined performance, adding four tackles and two sacks.
Coe’s health was never in question and was expected to be a big time help on the defensive line. He contributed four tackles and one tackle-for-loss. The Auburn defense held Georgia Southern to 70 yards rushing and held quarterback Shai Werts to just 21 yards on 11 carries.
“Playing assignment football, you’ve got to take the dive, you’ve got to take the quarterback and you’ve got to take the pitch, and I thought we took all that,” Malzahn said. “We put them in some passing situations, made them uncomfortable, had some big-time sacks and really harassed that quarterback all night. I think our guys were flying around and did a very good job upfront.”
On the offensive side of the ball the rust was evident, but eventually the Tigers wore down Georgia Southern’s defense and ran away with it.
Auburn rushed for 351 yards and threw for 184, despite turning the ball over three times in the first half. Kerryon Johnson had 16 carries for 136 yards, and one touchdown before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the rest of the game. Kam Martin stepped up to the plate in Johnson’s absence and had 14 carries for 136 yards, also adding a touchdown of his own on the ground.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham finished 14-of-24 for 185 yards with two touchdown passes, and carried the ball for 17 yards and one touchdown. Stidham’s first touchdown pass in his young Auburn career came on a short crossing route to Ryan Davis over the middle, who took it 19 yards before diving just inside the pylon. His second touchdown pass was an absolute beauty to Will Hastings, in the corner of the end zone, to put the finishing touches on his fourth game ever as a college quarterback.
“It was good for him to be out there,” Malzahn said. “He’s going to be an outstanding quarterback… Like I said, he’s played four college games and that was two years ago so I was pleased with the way he handled the offense, and he’ll get nothing but better.”
Auburn goes on the road to face the 5th ranked Clemson Tigers in Death Valley next week. Kickoff is set for 6:00 PM CST on ESPN.