With healthy Lawson, Auburn D sets stage for quick turnaround under Muschamp
ATLANTA -- In the aftermath of No. 6 Auburn's season-opening win over Louisville at the Georgia Dome, while players from both teams made their way towards their respective locker rooms, the two defensive minds stood together, talking shop.
Last season, the Cardinals' Todd Grantham made an immediate impact in his new surroundings, and this season, it's Will Muschamp's turn.
The former Florida coach, who was brought on to the tune of $1.6 million to join Gus Malzahn's staff, didn't have to wait long to see his newest project show its potential.
Defensive end Carl Lawson burst through the Louisville offensive line and chased quarterback Lamar Jackson from the pocket. He floated the ball down field -- and into the hands of the only player in the vicinity, Auburn safety Tray Matthews, setting the tone in Saturday's 31-24 victory.
"That was big," Malzhan said. "We were harassing their quarterback in the first half and our defense played outstanding."
The first half was dominating, as seven different Tigers went into the locker room with a sack or tackle for loss. Tackle Montravius Adams also forced a fumble that linebacker Justin Garrett picked up for an 82-yard return for a touchdowns, the longest in school history.
"That was a great momentum play, so defense played very good in the first half," Malzahn said.
But there were some deficiencies after the break as Jackson's mobility hurt the Tigers, with the QB accounting for 163 of the Cardinals' 264 yards after the break -- he had 86 rushing and 77 passing.
It didn't help that Lawson missed the entire second half with a hip flexor injury, a blow considering he was out all of last season with a knee injury. The crowned jewel of Malzahn's first recruiting class on the Plains out of Alpharetta's Milton High, Lawson finished with four tackles a sack and two tackles for loss.
Porous defense proved costly for the Tigers a year ago as they ranked 66th in total D and gave up 38.8 points per game over the final seven games to teams not named Samford, which was held to seven points.
Auburn also ranked 95th in sacks with just 1.62 per game, with only Vanderbilt (101st at 1.50) and LSU (103rd 1.46) worse among SEC teams.
Muschamp was a key recruit in trying to rectify. While the coordinator at Auburn and LSU, his units were in the top 10 in FBS and in his last four years at Florida, his defenses also ranked among the nation's best.
New energy in leadership can make a difference, but the biggest addition was clearly what the Tigers were missing a year ago: Lawson.
A preseason All-SEC first-team pick, he provided just a glimpse due to the hip injury. But he also showed that when healthy, he and Muschamp are poised to give Auburn the defense it needs to go with Jeremy Johnson and that high-powered offense.
"Carl Lawson is an impact player," Malzahn said. "I think you saw that in the first half. When he doesn't make the play, he helps other people make plays. With him being out, obviously, there was a difference."
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney