It wasn't always pretty, but in the end it was up to the defense to save the day for the Tigers and they delivered.
Things didn't start out so great for the Auburn defense, however, as the first half was shades of 2012 as Mike Leach's offense piled up 21 first downs, 283 yards of total offense and 21 points. Going into the half the game appeared to be headed for an offensive shootout with 46 total points scored.
But, Auburn had other ideas.
Despite playing 48 snaps and with very little depth at key positions on defense, the Tigers found a way to get the job done as the secondary played tighter coverage and got help from the front four. Two of Auburn's newcomers gave a boost in the middle of the defense as Ben Bradley forced an intentional grounding to earn a sack while freshman Montravius Adams was a brute in the final 30 minutes.
Pushing the pocket several times to put the heat on Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, Adams showed why he was considered one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the country last year.
"It felt great," Adams said of his sack. "It was my first play of the game and I didn't want to let the team down. At the snap of the ball, my only focus was to push down the quarterback, and I did."
Getting a pair of interceptions in the first half from Robenson Therezie and Josh Holsey to tie last season's total for the entire year, Auburn needed one final interception in the fourth quarter to keep the game in check. Driving from its own 30-yard line to the Auburn eight, Washington State decided to try Therezie once again as Holliday's pass was picked off in the endzone to preserve the Tigers 31-24 lead.
Auburn's defense had to survive one final surge from the Cougars following a Tre Mason fumble with just over four minutes left in the game, but the Tigers bowed up after allowing just one first down, stopping Washington State on a fourth and five to secure the win.
That was a far cry from the way the group finished off its 2012 campaign and is a big step in the right direction for Johnson's charges. Getting production from a variety of players on a night when the Tigers had their backs against the wall time and time again, Auburn's defenders had a different look leaving Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night and it's one Malzahn was happy to see once again.
"I'm just so proud of our guys," Malzahn said. "You know they went through a storm last year and they really bought in with what our coaches have asked us to do. This is kind of one of those moments that you're very happy for them.
"I'm very happy for our coaches and really our Auburn fans. Our fans deserve to win and we have a chance to get better I mean we're not there. I think everybody knows that, but we have a chance to get better and I'm really enjoying coaching these guys."
It's going to take those kinds of efforts moving forward for the Auburn defense with Marshall and the offense likely to suffer more growing pains. Playing without starters Dee Ford, Jeffrey Whitaker and Justin Garrett, the Tigers found a way to gut out a win, something last season's team couldn't do. The 2013 season is just getting started, but Saturday night showed this Auburn team is prepared to fight and is a big step in the right direction.