AUBURN, Ala. — Brian VanGorder fretted.
More often than not, it’s a marathon of peaks and valleys, but that onslaught of points dropped on his defense by a guy named Johnny Football had VanGorder a little bit concerned for the direction of Auburn defensive players.
“Bottom line, we got knocked out,” the Tigers’ first-year defensive coordinator said Saturday after Auburn righted itself with a 42-7 victory.
“This season’s been a weird season. We haven’t played good defense, but we have an ascending defense that was playing better, and we got knocked out. You had to worry about that from last week and a psychological standpoint where we were.
“And we came back today.”
Back around World War I, Auburn got pasted 68-7 by Georgia Tech, and the response was a 58-0 romp over Oglethorpe. A 68-point swing, defensively.
But here’s the catch: the Tech loss ended the 1917 season. Auburn had to wait more than 10 months to bounce back. Last week, the Tigers went from getting embarrassed by one of the top offenses in the country (Texas A&M) to swarming one of the nation’s worst (New Mexico State), just seven days apart.
“It showed we had something in us this past weekend,” junior defensive end Corey Lemonier said. “Hats off to us. It shows we have resilience.”
The swagger’s back. However, the next opponent’s a tad tougher.
“So next week, you know, new measurement,” VanGorder said. “Let’s see how we line up and play Georgia.”
On it goes for Auburn (2-7, 0-6 SEC) with its November schedule, which will alternate Davids with Goliaths on the opposite sideline over the course of the month.
Defensive end Corey Lemonier politely admitted Sunday evening “to ruin their dreams of playing for a BCS championship would make our season.”
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is also one of the league’s best, between the Tigers and fifth-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1), who need a victory Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium to seal a berth in the SEC Championship game.
Twenty-two Tigers hail from Georgia.
“It doesn’t matter what state you’re from,” coach Gene Chizik said. “Everyone’s going to say, well, you’ve got a lot of guys from Georgia, is it going to mean more to them. This game means a lot to anybody that’s a part of the Auburn family.”
The last time a championship contender came to town, LSU nearly saw its dreams diverted by a high-motor, hungry defense led by Lemonier’s pressure on quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Auburn hopes to disrupt Georgia’s Aaron Murray and spoil his 22nd birthday Saturday.
“It’s going to be a big factor for us to win the game,” Lemonier said. “Getting pressure creates turnovers, and the team with the most turnovers wins.”
Stats don’t tell the whole story of VanGorder’s first year, but they do indicate this likely will go down as Auburn’s most forgiving single-season defense in school history. Opponents are averaging 428.7 yards per game, 20 yards above last year’s infamously record-setting unit.
It hasn’t sat well with VanGorder, who managed Georgia’s defense from 2001-04.
“I think obviously everybody knows Brian’s body of work, and he’s done a great job being the defensive coordinator wherever he’s been,” Chizik said. “With us personally, it’s a transition period for sure. There’s some games when we’ve played really, really well. Then you also had our low moments. I think it’s been inconsistent; sporadic.”
In Chizik’s four years in Auburn, Georgia has taken two of three matchups, scoring 107 points in the process.
“This is an extremely explosive offense as we know. Murray is obviously an exceptional talent,” Chizik said. “Their running backs are really, really good, their young guys. They’ve got receivers, some really good players out there they get the ball to.
“But everything’s centered around the quarterback. He’s the guy that makes it go and he gets the ball in those guys’ hands. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”