Auburn’s defense maintaining recent trend of strong 2nd-half performances

Cadillac Williams walked out of the locker room at halftime without saying a word.

He didn’t need to; he wanted to let his players hash things out on their own, so he turned it over to Derick Hall and Auburn’s other seniors on defense. This was, after all, their night, their final home game at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Williams — as he has done time and again since taking over as interim head coach — wanted to empower his players to lead the way.

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“They gave us a not-so-nice talk, if you want to call it that,” cornerback Jaylin Simpson said. “But they just gave us some words of wisdom in the locker room. And, you know, I think that changed the energy for everybody, the whole team.”

After Auburn allowed Western Kentucky to rally back from a double-digit deficit in the first half and tie the game going into halftime Saturday, the Tigers clamped down on the Hilltoppers and their Air Raid attack in the second half at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Reignited by the halftime talk from Hall and the other seniors, Auburn’s defense pitched a shutout in the second half as the team pulled away for a convincing 41-17 win.

“That was special,” defensive lineman Colby Wooden said. “I didn’t recognize it until after the game. But, yeah, that’s one way to go out in Jordan-Hare. To hold them to no points in the second half, that’s crazy.”

Williams may have left the room before that player-led powwow, but Auburn’s interim head coach heard the message from his seniors clearly from the other side of the doors. They discussed self-inflicted wounds, not doing what they’ve been coached to do or sticking to the gameplan, and just not focusing on team defense at times.

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It was a blunt discussion but one that needed to be had after WKU stormed back from a 17-3 deficit in the final five minutes of the first half.

“It was good,” senior linebacker Owen Pappoe said. “Like, we knew what to do. We had a great week of preparation. It’s kind of like the first half, we just came out kind of slow, so it was more so like, ‘Guys, wake up! We’re not going out like this on senior night, man. Let’s go out there, play hard and finish.’”

Coming out of halftime, Auburn’s defense turned things around. WKU didn’t score and was held to just 106 yards of offense in the second half, averaging 2.6 yards per play and committing two turnovers — including a pick-six by DJ James that put an exclamation point on Auburn’s defensive effort.

Western Kentucky’s second-half drive chart looked like this: interception, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, pick-six, turnover on downs. The Hilltoppers had one second-half drive that went 20 yards or longer, and quarterback Austin Reed completed just 13-of-27 passes for 78 yards after halftime following a first half in which he had 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“Shoot, really just answering the call,” Pappoe said. “We came out flat. There’s been times this season where we went downhill going into the second half, but just going out there and continuing to pick up the pace and finishing strong. That’s what we did.”

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Auburn’s defense has bucked those second-half struggles since Williams was elevated to interim head coach, stepping up in the second half of each of the Tigers’ last three games—particularly in the third quarter.

Against Mississippi State, Auburn’s defense gave up zero points, just 40 total yards and 2 yards per play in the third quarter as the Tigers tried to rally back from an early 24-3 deficit. Last week against Texas A&M, Auburn turned in an unfathomably dominant quarter coming out of halftime, holding the Aggies to minus-3 yards of offense in the third quarter of a 13-10 win.

That trend continued against WKU, as Auburn has suddenly become a second-half team under Williams, who heaped praise on the job defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding and staff have done in recent week. Some of it has been in-game adjustments, but some of it has been just sheer effort from Auburn’s resurgent defense, which Wooden noted has “calmed down and realized” it just needs to play to its identity of being a hardnosed, relentless group.

“When I say they are locked in, like, they believe that they can shut people out,” Williams said. “…This motto, which wasn’t started by me, I think it was started by Will Friend, ‘fight or quit.’ I just kind of ran with it, but fight or quit, that’s it, man. We want to master each and every play. And what happens? We give up a big play, stuff happens, we are moving on. We’re moving on and we’re being present.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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