Auburn Football: Ellis Johnson's Defense Has Found Its Clutch Factor

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Auburn Football: Ellis Johnson's Defense Has Found Its Clutch Factor
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There's a trend among all of the most memorable moments from Auburn's 24-20 win over Mississippi State last Saturday.

In the days following the Tigers' come-from-behind win, the buzz on the Plains has been all about C.J. Uzomah's game-winning touchdown grab with 10 seconds left on the clock.

The talk of the town has been of Nick Marshall's composure and improvisation which kept the Tigers' drive alive.

Folks are beaming about Gus Malzahn's offense—that dangerous no-huddle attack that went 88 yards in less than two minutes, and made it all look easy.

It's the offense that's getting the credit for Saturday night's win in Auburn and for the Tigers' 3-0 start to the year.

That just comes with the territory, it would seem, especially after late-game heroics like that.

But across the way, on the other side of the ball—and quietly, perhaps—the Auburn defense has been putting forth some heroic efforts of its own, doing its share to lift the Tigers to a perfect 3-0 mark.

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The Tigers haven't allowed a score in the fourth quarter all season, shutting out opponents when it matters most in each of Auburn's first three wins.

"I like to think it starts with conditioning," Malzahn said on Tuesday. "Our guys have worked extremely hard in the weight room and conditioning. The way we practice I think has a lot to do with that."

Malzahn knows his team.

The Auburn defense hasn't played perfectly, but with their backs against the wall late in games, time and again the Tigers have come up big, keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone and keeping Auburn in the win column.

That started long before Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium—long before the roaring crowds, the prime-time lights and national TV cameras.

It didn't start with a single catch in the back of the end zone. It didn't start with a single drive down the field.

It's an attitude, and a philosophy, and it started months ago.

It started in the summer, in a boiling weight room, with a team determined to change its destiny after a miserable 3-9 season.

It started on those summer days—those days that are 100 percent guts and zero percent glory.

Players, like senior cornerback Ryan White, strove for personal bests and strove to put the miseries from the 2012 season behind them. The voice of new strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell bellowed through their ears, echoing in their heads.

That's when a defense, once ridiculed for playing too soft, was strengthened and hardened.

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And that's what has carried over to game day.

"It started with Coach Russell in the weight room this summer," White said on Sunday. "We talked about finishing, and if you see us before the fourth quarter starts, we hold up our fists for 'four.' We pride on finishing, and the defense takes more pride in it."

With that sense of pride in mind, the Tigers have found ways to finish on defense all season—finish drives, finish games and finish victories.

There's still plenty of room to grow for the Auburn defense. The Tigers' efforts haven't been very pretty on the stat sheet.

While Auburn has held opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter in each of the first three games of the season, the Tigers are allowing an average of 91.3 yards per fourth quarter. Over four quarters, that kind of performance would rank just average in team defense nationally.

Still, when it matters most, the Auburn defense has come up big. Opponents have yet to sniff the end zone in the fourth quarter against the Tigers, nor has any opponent even attempted a field goal in the final frame of play.

"The fourth-quarter thing, credit Coach Malzahn," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Sunday. "I think he's put a confidence and an attitude in these guys. They're determined they're going to play through adversity and finish ball games. It's something they've had a problem doing."

It's that determination that has the Tigers off to a perfect 3-0 start to the season—fittingly enough—since it was born from a passion to erase the memories of a 3-9 season a year ago.

Already, the Tigers have matched their season win total from 2012.

But the Auburn defense won't be satisfied just yet. Those players weren't satisfied in the summer, when they spent long hours fighting to improve after earning just three wins.

And they won't be satisfied with just three wins now.

Perhaps that's why when the Auburn defense has to dig deep, it knows just where to look.

 

Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter, @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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