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December 20, 2014

Auburn football: Tigers' defense turned it around at halftime

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Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2014 6:34 pm | Updated: 3:49 pm, Mon Sep 1, 2014.

AUBURN — Gabe Wright wasn't happy.

When he made his way into the locker room at halftime of Saturday's 45-21 win over Arkansas, he went with a purpose in mind: He had something to say to his fellow defenders, disappointed in the play of he and his teammates. Arkansas' offense had been able to move the ball with little issue and in any manner it wished.

When the Razorbacks wanted to run it, they ran it well, finishing with 151 yards and one score. The Razorbacks passed it every bit as effectively, as junior quarterback Brandon Allen went 9-for-14 for 116 yards and two touchdowns.

Allowing three scores and 267 yards of total offense was too much for Wright to take sitting down.

"I just really see the potential in this defense," said Wright, a senior defensive lineman. "Early on, we had some things breaking off and things of that sort, but I would say that was more of Arkansas doing a good job of showing us something we haven't seen. But it just shows the maturity and the leadership that we have for guys to be able to bounce back that quickly and get the job done."

And the defense rebounded in a major way.

In the second half, the Razorbacks gained only 61 yards. Of that, only two yards came on the ground.

Consider Wright pleased.

"You've got a running team in the SEC -- a team that likes to be the bully -- and we held them to (minus)-five yards," he said, referring to the Razorbacks' rushing output in the fourth quarter. "It goes to show the work that we've put in."

Senior safety Jermaine Whitehead — who came up with a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter — heard Wright's message loud and clear. Though he declined to offer specifics on Wright's speech, he said it centered around the unit's mind-set.
In his mind, they played too tight in the first half.

"It was an SEC opener. It was a big game we needed to win," Whitehead said. "But we couldn't put too much pressure on ourselves, either, so we just came out and played."

Justin Garrett said it was easy to tell Wright's passionate address fired up the rest of the defense -- and he didn't even hear it.

"I wasn't even in that part of the locker room when that happened," said Garrett, the starter at Auburn's "star" defensive back position. "I was getting some IV's put in me to make sure I stayed hydrated and didn't cramp up. But whatever he said, it really got our defense pumped up."

To chalk the Tigers' second-half turnaround up to Wright alone wouldn't be fair to veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, though. Gus Malzahn didn't forget to sing Johnson's praises afterward.

"He made the adjustments," Malzahn said. "They settled down and starting stopping the run and that changed the whole tone of the game. That was a huge factor in the second half. We got quite a few stops and got the ball back to the offense."

By the time Wright made it back to the locker room — this time for postgame interviews — he had a far sunnier disposition. Sure, he was still a bit irritated by the defense's poor effort in the first half. But that took a backseat to the unit's dominant second-half performance.

That alone will help Wright view Saturday as a whole in a positive light.

"It's never how you start. It's always how you finish," Wright said. "I couldn't be more proud of the guys right now."

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