Ole Miss football: 3 things to watch as the Rebels face Auburn
Ole Miss sits at 6-0, with quality wins behind and multiple games ahead that the Rebels are favored to win. In the midst of an SEC shakeup in which Alabama no longer seems to be the most dominant program on a week-in-and-week-out basis, some are already talking about the possibility of Ole Miss winning the conference championship and making a run for a national title.
Head coach Lane Kiffin has expressed that his sights aren’t set entirely on that right now, and that the Rebels still must improve, noting the issues in the 1st half of the 52-28 win over Vanderbilt.
Here’s a look into 3 things to watch as Ole Miss prepares to face a struggling Auburn team:
1. How much the passing game can continue to expand
We’ve watch the Rebels have their way with teams on the ground all season, and in several games, they’ve thrown only when they wanted to. But as quarterback Jaxson Dart continues to progress and the offensive line gets better in pass protection, the air attack has begun to show itself in a positive way.
In last week’s victory, the Rebels had 143 yards on the ground, far less than has typically been the case. That paled in comparison to the 448 yards they had through the air, as Dart completed 25 of 32 passes with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Kiffin praised the signal-caller for his big plays, but he lamented the 2 bad plays, saying he usually has only 1 “really bad” play per game.
But the elements of explosiveness have certainly begun to show themselves. Dart is getting better, and he’s showing he can man a true passing attack that put up big numbers on Vanderbilt despite some decision-making issues to work through.
The offensive line, and how well it performed in pass protection, was extremely important.
“They pass protected well. We had a lot of run stunts as you saw, and were really getting stuffed early,” Kiffin said. “I wouldn’t have guessed the stats ended up being 7.3 (yards per carry) for Zach (Evans) and 4.2 for Quinshon (Judkins) because at the half, they were like 2 yards a carry. Good resolve. We obviously changed some things up with some perimeter runs because of all the interior stunts.
“The guys took advantage of game-planning. It was a cool 3rd quarter, because halftime adjustments can be overrated. But there were some really cool plays that we drew up at the half that the players executed for some back-to-back touchdowns.”
Former Mississippi State wideout Malik Heath and Jonathan Mingo have been among the standouts in the passing game. Mingo finished the Vanderbilt game with an unreal 9 receptions for 347 yards with 2 touchdowns, and Heath finished the 22-19 victory over Kentucky with 6 receptions for 100 yards. Tight end Michael Trigg was also beginning to emerge with 41 receiving yards in the Kentucky game, and he was tied with Heath with a team-high 3 receiving touchdowns headed into the Vanderbilt contest, but it looks like he will be out for the rest of the season with a collarbone injury.
2. Tackling in the secondary and overall defense
This defense has shown its ability to come up clutch, like when it forced 2 fumbles in the final 3 minutes to seal the deal in a closely fought game against Kentucky. If those plays hadn’t been made, Wildcats quarterback Will Levis might have been able to propel his team to the gritty victory.
The defense needs to play more consistently after seeming to come alive in a big way in the 2nd half against Vanderbilt, after the Rebels headed into the locker room with a 17-14 lead that no one drew up. The tackling effort within the secondary also must get better.
“I don’t know. It wasn’t a major thing,” Kiffin said when asked about what went differently for the defense in the 2nd half. “They had a touchdown run on a 4th down that we ran the wrong gap scheme. We didn’t tackle very well. We still didn’t tackle very well in the 2nd half. Really poor tackling by the secondary, which in our system is very important as you know, because the ball goes to those guys a lot.”
How the Rebels remedy these issues, and whether the defense can come up with the same type of game-changing plays it had against Kentucky, will be something to keep an eye on.
This is more looking at the Auburn side of this matchup than anything else. The Tigers committed an egregious 10 penalties in their 42-10 loss to Georgia last week. Eight came in the 1st half alone, and 6 in the 1st quarter.
“It’s frustrating as hell,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin told reporters after the game. “And you don’t know why. I mean, that’s one of the things, too — it happens like it’s not changing in the game. And right or wrong, you can argue it all you want. But it’s not going to change the outcome right there at that moment. So you’ve got to respond to that. And, you know, we’ve been saying it, too: 1st and 10, 2nd and 5, is different than 2nd and 15. Right? First and 15. So against really good teams, you start getting behind the chains, it’s the advantage to the defense.”
The Rebels are favored by 2 touchdowns. Auburn has shown at times that it is its own worst enemy, and that won’t help coupled with the talent and momentum Ole Miss has right now. The Rebels have committed 36 penalties this season — an average of 6 per game.