AUBURN, Ala. - Auburn’s defensive line has regained some of its swagger.
The 19th-ranked Tigers’ all-sophomore front four was bullied early in the season but has begun to more closely resemble the run-stuffing group led by Nick Fairley last season.
They’ll try to keep it going Saturday against No. 1 LSU and its assortment of runners including Alfred Blue, Michael Ford and reserve quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
“It’s just a pride thing,” Auburn defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker said. “When you talk about somebody’s going to come in and just run the ball against you, there’s a pride there. We know they’ve got a good offensive line and they’re going to come off and they’re going to smashmouth. But the deal is, we’re going to smashmouth as well.
“There’s no running away, there’s no hiding, there’s no intimidation. There’s no nervous ?I hope.’ It’s not one of those deals. We’re going to come in, ?This is what we’ve got to do to win.’”
Auburn (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) certainly seems more capable of backing up such tough talk now than early in the season. Auburn was pushed around for an average of 266 rushing yards on 55 attempts in its first three games, ranking 116th nationally against the run.
The past four opponents have averaged a much more respectable 31 rushes for 120 yards, and Auburn has contained South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and held Florida to 66 yards on the ground.
The turnaround has come despite injuries to defensive ends Dee Ford, LaDarius Owens and Justin Delaine.
“We’re playing with a swagger,” said freshman DeVaunte Sigler, who’s logging snaps at both end and tackle in those players’ absence.
“Everybody’s depending on each other. Everybody’s taking responsibility for each other. Everybody’s going out there and just knowing their plays, doing their assignment, going 100 percent.”
The biggest resurgence has come from end Corey Lemonier, who leads the league with six sacks and is second with 10 tackles for loss. The reigning SEC defensive player of the week has done most of his damage in the past four games, when he’s had five sacks and eight tackles behind the line.
Lemonier said coach Gene Chizik gave him an encouraging word after his slow start.
The message: “You can play better than you’re playing. Just play to your potential. He recruited me to do good things. Basically, that’s it,” he said.
“I was frustrated. I just wasn’t doing the little things right. I put it on myself and I worked it out.”
Getting to Jefferson or starter Jarrett Lee figures to be no easy task. LSU has allowed a league-low five sacks for minus-35 yards.
Auburn defenders got a break with the suspension of LSU’s leading rusher Spencer Ware, but Ford has matched his six touchdowns on the ground and Jefferson brings another dimension with his ability to both pass and run.
“This has to be the best defensive game we’ve played all year for us to have a chance to win,” Chizik said. “Their running game is extremely physical. They don’t try to trick you. There’s not a bunch of tricks. They’re going to line up, and they’re going to run their plays. They’re going to out-physical you.
“They’re going to run the ball downhill. They’re going to play-action pass and hit you over the top. Nothing fancy, just really good physical football and good one-on-one match ups. There are no secrets to it.”
It was also no secret that Auburn’s defensive line was in for a rebuilding job with the departures of the Lombardi Award-winning Fairley and fellow starting tackle Zach Clayton from a top-10 rushing defense.
They helped Auburn hold LSU to 115 yards rushing last season, but end Nosa Eguae is the only returning starter from the defensive line. Lee is happy to not have to deal with Fairley, who had 2-1/2 sacks and knocked Jefferson from that game with a bodyslam.
“I’m glad he’s gone on and is doing his thing in the NFL,” Lee said.