AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn players smiled and celebrated their victory over Georgia Southern on Saturday night, especially the guys on defense.
The Tigers held the Eagles’ triple-option offense to 78 total yards, the second-fewest ever allowed by an Auburn defense. It was also the first time the Tigers held an opponent under 100 yards — Georgia Southern was 0-for-15 on third-down conversions — since Ball State gained only 92 yards in 2001.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s players could be seen dancing in the locker room before a few stopped to speak with media.
“Good win and we’ll enjoy this tonight,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday night. “A nd get ready for Clemson [Sunday].”
The defending national champions await, and a trip to Clemson’s Death Valley is exactly what a defense still fighting for its reputation needs. After losing four NFL draftees, including Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, the Tigers didn’t miss a beat in its initial showing of 2017.
They also that’s not going to be enough against a Clemson team that opened its season with 56-3 victory against Kent State, and beat Auburn last season.
“We’re never satisfied with how we played,” said Auburn’s Derrick Brown, who made his first career start and recorded a career-high in tackles (6). “We’re just going to try to improve on what we did [Saturday night] next week.”
The challenge is even more daunting. Kelly Bryant, Dabo Swinney’s new quarterback, stepped in for departed Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson and led fifth-ranked Clemson to 665 total yards. The junior was 16-for-22 passing for 236 yards and added a touchdown. Four Clemson running backs combined for 278 yards while juniors Deon Cain and Milan Richard totaled 140 receiving yards.
But Steele’s defense played well enough to beat Clemson in last year’s season opener. It was Malzahn’s offense that sputtered in a 19-13 loss.
“Clemson’s a great football team,” sophomore defensive lineman Marlon Davidson said. “We’re happy to play against them again with everything that happened last year. It’s just time to go back out there and have fun, like always. We really just hope to showcase effort.”
It’s also a showcase opportunity for Clemson against a team with its own national title aspirations this season.
“I think our guys will be able to gain a lot of confidence, and we don’t have a whole lot of time,” Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said after the win. “Getting ready for a great team in Auburn next week, it’ll be the same focus. It’s not who we play. It’s how we play.”
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Auburn’s key to winning in an atmosphere similar to the SEC is clear.
“I think you just have to lock in,” Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham said. “You’ve got to really have laser focus. If you don’t, you can get distracted really easy in a place like that. Obviously, Death Valley is one of the better places in the country to play, so we just have to stay locked in.”
If Auburn’s defense can do that, it will give itself chance a team to survive in South Carolina.
“Obviously, it’s a great opportunity for us,” Stidham said. “Clemson is a phenomenal team. They won the national championship last year. We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to get better from this. Watch the film, get better and start game planning those guys because obviously they’re a great football team and it’s going to be a dogfight.”
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