AUBURN — Derick Hall didn’t shy away from the truth: He was frustrated.
The sophomore had been a key part of Auburn’s defensive line rotation through the first season-and-a-half of his college career, pressuring the quarterback multiple times in 17 games. But he had no sacks .
He wasn’t alone this year. The Tigers’ buck position didn’t produce a single sack during the first five games. The entire defensive line had just three. “Affecting the passer” was No. 1 on coach Gus Malzahn’s list of areas the defense needed to improve.
That’s why the win over LSU was so freeing. Hall recorded the first 1.5 sacks of his career, including one where he forced a fumble that Christian Tutt returned for a touchdown. The defensive line finished that game with four.
But it’s only one game. The goal now, Hall said, is to become a “repeat offender.”
“Doing our job over and over again,” he explained. “Week in, week out.”
Saturday’s game against Tennessee (6 p.m. CT, ESPN) could provide the perfect test of whether the win over LSU was a fluke or a sign of things to come for the Tigers’ (4-2) defensive line. Because for all the Volunteers’ (2-4) struggles on offense during a four-game losing streak, they do still boast one of the most star-studded offensive lines in the conference.
Left tackle Wanya Morris, left guard Trey Smith, right guard Cade Mays and right tackle Darnell Wright were five-star recruits. Center Brandon Kennedy was a four-star.
“You can turn the film on. You can see they're very talented up front,” Malzahn said. “You've got to continue to stay sharp and keep building upon your last game.”
Staying sharp may be a challenge after going 21 days between games. The Tigers had an open date Nov. 7, and last week’s game at Mississippi State was postponed to Dec. 12.
It's also unknown whether the defensive line is affected by COVID-19. Malzahn said Auburn will be without players Saturday stemming from 13 positive tests within the program over the previous two weeks but would not say who, how many or whether they were starters.
The defensive line was finally getting healthy before the break. Big Kat Bryant, Zykeivous Walker, Dre Butler, Marquis Burks and Jay Hardy were getting over the minor ailments that cost them time and forced players like Tyrone Truesdell, Daquan Newkirk and Colby Wooden to play more snaps.
And that group’s last game was its best. Not just because of the sacks, either. Auburn held LSU to 32 rushing yards on 27 carries and didn’t allow a touchdown until early in the fourth quarter after it already led by 45 points.
That was against what had been one of the most explosive offenses in the SEC, too. Tennessee doesn’t appear to provide the same challenge. The Volunteers scored a combined 66 points in wins over South Carolina and Missouri to open the season, but they’ve scored just 58 in four games since, and no more than 17 in any of the last three. They lost to Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas by 34, 27, 31 and 11 points, respectively.
Quarterback play has been the biggest culprit. Jarrett Guarantano, Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer are completing 55.6% of their passes over the past three games and have thrown more than twice as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns (two). Tennessee hasn’t passed for more than 163 yards in any of those games. It’s not clear which one will start Saturday.
Regardless, Malzahn expects the Volunteers to lean on a rushing attack that is averaging 43 carries for 166 yards over those same three games behind Eric Gray, Ty Chandler and that offensive line. But even that group hasn’t been efficient — Tennessee has averaged only 3.9 yards per carry since minus-1 in the loss against Georgia.
Auburn is allowing fewer than 3.8 yards per carry, which defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said is his group’s best mark through six games during his five-year tenure.
The defensive line has a chance to build on that success against Tennessee.
“You come here for a reason,” Hall said. “You come here to develop. You come here to get better. You come here for your goal: To be able sustain and get better week in and week out.”