AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's defense was in disarray heading into the locker room at halftime Saturday.
Arkansas' talented trio of running backs averaged 7.2 yards per carry in the first half. Quarterback Brandon Allen was hitting wide-open targets on play-action passes.
Worst of all, the defensive struggles bled over into the offense, which lost momentum after scoring three straight touchdowns to open the game.
But, following a go-ahead touchdown by returning quarterback Nick Marshall to start the second half, Auburn's defense clamped down on the Razorbacks' power-running offense.
|Statistic||1st Half||2nd Half|
|Yards per Play||7.6||2.4|
Auburn Athletics, 8/30/14
"I’m very proud of our guys coming out facing an SEC team," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "We talked to our guys and told them it would be a dogfight. I’m proud of the way our guys responded the second half. Our defense made the adjustments. We started playing physical football."
A shift in the secondary allowed the Tigers to close down quicker on Allen's receivers in the flats, and the Razorbacks were forced to go a quick three-and-out. Middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy rebounded from a quiet first half and got in the backfield to drop Alex Collins for a loss on the ensuing drive.
Then, the Auburn defense commanded all of the game's momentum with a pick-six that was caused by the newly reinstated Robenson Therezie and finished by fellow senior Jermaine Whitehead.
"[Therezie] is a freak," Whitehead said. "He does a lot for the team. With all the experience he got last year, he feels a lot more comfortable. At practice, he knows exactly what’s going on. He’s definitely going to make something this year."
Even after a lengthy lightning delay early in the fourth quarter, Auburn's defense held on for the second-half shutout, with McKinzy recording a monster sack of Allen to end any hope the Razorbacks had of a comeback.
"They brought more pressure," Allen said afterward. "They did a good job of slowing down our rush game in the second half. We didn’t make the plays we needed to get to get some drives going."
Defensive improvement out of the locker room is nothing new for the Tigers.
Auburn's rush defense was ranked 105th nationally last year in the first half of games, but halftime adjustments helped that ranking jump to 57th in the second half. The Tigers also allowed five fewer touchdowns on the ground, and those changes resurfaced in the 2014 season opener.
That shift in ratings did not turn Auburn into an elite second-half defense, but it was one of the deciding factors in several tight games for the Tigers in their run to the SEC title.
When another conference team jumped out in the first half, it was back to the drawing board for the Auburn defense—literally.
"We just quickly took a look at what Arkansas was doing," senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said. "Early on, it's kind of hard to see what they're all doing and then respond. At halftime, we were able to sit down and put what we needed to change on the board. Guys just focused and played more physical to get the win."
After the game, Malzahn pointed to those halftime adjustments from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and his assistants as the turning point in what had been a tight SEC contest.
"Ellis is one of the better defensive coordinators in college football," Malzahn said. "He’s been doing this a long time, and he’s good at it. He made the adjustments. They settled down and started stopping the run, and that changed the whole tone of the game, and that was a huge factor in the second half. We got quite a few stops and got the ball back to the offense."
Much like Malzahn's offense, Auburn's strength on defense comes from its ability to adapt to the opposing team.
Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme is designed to counter teams prone to airing it out, but the Tigers had a plan for the Razorbacks' power-running attack.
Auburn started four defensive tackles up front—Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker, Wright and Montravius Adams—in a "Rhino package" that has been practiced since the start of spring camp.
The larger front four neutralized Arkansas for a quick three-and-out to start the game, but the Razorbacks started rolling on offense when they were able to get Alex Collins, Korliss Marshall and Jonathan Williams into the second level.
When Wright got back into the locker room, his teammates said he rallied the defense to make a change and get back into the form of a championship club.
"I just see the potential of this team," Wright said. "You've got a team that runs the ball in the SEC and likes to be the bully, and we held them to a few yards in the second half. Early on, we had some things breaking off because Arkansas did a good job of showing us things we haven't seen. But guys were able to bounce back quickly, and we showed we are going to get the job done.
"It's never how you start. It's how you finish."