Ole Miss Rebels vs. Auburn Tigers Complete Game Preview
When No. 24 Ole Miss collides with Auburn Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium, good friends Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn will aim to out-duel one another in a game expected to feature a plethora of offensive fireworks.
A win at Auburn this year would be the Rebels first win on the Plains since 2003 and only their third win there in 16 program appearances. Further, a 4-1 start to 2013 would be Ole Miss' first such start since the 2002 campaign.
Not only will the Rebels and Tigers enter the contest with the same 3-1 (1-1 SEC) record, but both squads will also be fighting for a much-needed W ahead of grueling SEC stretches.
While Ole Miss is coming off a 25-0 drubbing at No. 1 Alabama last weekend, the Tigers last outing resulted in a 35-21 loss at No. 10 LSU two weeks ago. While both the Rebels and Tigers fell handily on the road against quality opponents in their most recent games, Malzahn's team was able to benefit from an open date this past weekend.
As fast-paced and up-tempo as Freeze and Malzahn like to run their complex offenses, the last team standing at the end of this battle will likely be the one that played better defense and made fewer mistakes throughout the course of the game.
When: Saturday, Oct. 5; 6 p.m. CT
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Alabama
Satellite Radio: Sirius 139, XM 198
Series History: Auburn leads 27-10
In Auburn: Auburn leads 13-2
Spread: Ole Miss (-2.5), per VegasInsider.com Consensus
Ole Miss Keys to Victory
Recapture the Offensive Mojo
As electric as Ole Miss performed on offense against Vandy, SEMO and Texas, the unit simply lost its mojo in Tuscaloosa. Saturday night on the Plains, QB Bo Wallace and Co. have to get back their old, enjoyable and efficient offensive ways.
Prior to playing Alabama, the Rebel offense was averaging 38 PPG and 490 YPG on offense.
However, the Crimson Tide held the Rebels to a mere 205 yards of total offense in the shutout win.
Against an Auburn D yielding opposing offenses an average of 439.5 YPG, Wallace should have much more success running the hurry-up offense. If he can find success early at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Ole Miss should be able to recapture its offensive mojo: spreading the field and capturing real estate.
Contain Auburn RB Tre Mason and Co.
The Ole Miss run defense is only allowing opponents 149.2 YPG, but as a team Auburn is picking up 232.2 YPG rushing each time out. When the two forces meet on Saturday, something has to give.
Specifically, all-purpose Auburn junior Tre Mason is a true threat when the ball gets in his hands.
Not only is Mason averaging 84.5 YPG on the ground, but he's also averaging 31.7 yards every time he fields a kick return (No. 7 nationally). In fact, he took a kick return 100 yards for a score against Washington State in the season opener.
Along with Mason's production out of the backfield, RB Corey Grant is averaging 59.8 YPG, RB Cameron Artis-Payne is averaging 51.8 YPG and QB Nick Marshall is picking up a respectable 37 YPG when he tucks and runs.
Force QB Nick Marshall to Beat You with His Arm
The junior-college transfer is slowly picking up Gus Malzahn's offense, but he's still not firing on all cylinders just yet. In particular, Marshall has gotten off to a slow start in first halves this season.
While his average completion percentage is 68.1 percent after the half, Marshall is only completing 48.1 percent of pass attempts over the opening two quarters of play. That's a significant difference, and one that will be a major focus of the Rebels this weekend.
If defensive coordinator Dave Wommack can create pressure on Marshall early in the contest, an efficient Ole Miss defense could cause the Auburn signal-caller to make some poor decisions.
By focusing on the Tre Mason and the Auburn run game, the Rebels can force Marshall to beat them.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Play Better Against the Pass
Entering Saturday's matchup with the Rebels, Auburn is giving up 267.5 YPG passing (No. 96 nationally).
Against an extremely talented group of Ole Miss receivers, the Tigers must defend the pass better.
With three receivers each averaging nearly 50-plus yards receiving, Donte Moncrief (58.2), Laquon Treadwell (51.2) and Evan Engram (47.2), QB Bo Wallace has multiple receiving weapons at his disposal.
Further, the return of speedy WR Vince Sanders stacks the deck that much more for Wallace.
After an inefficient performance against Bama last week, the Ole Miss QB will be aiming to make a statement against the Tigers. In order to prevent that from happening, "Star" Robensen Therezie (25 tackles, 2 TFL and 2 INT), LB Cassanova McKinzie (21 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and the rest of an injury-ridden Auburn defense must step up Saturday night.
Stop Putting the Ball on the Ground
The Tigers currently rank No. 92 out 123 teams in the turnover margin category.
Moreover, they've coughed the ball up a total of 12 times through only the first four games. Had Auburn not recovered eight of their fumbles and picked off four passes to go along with the four QB Nick Marshall has tossed, the Auburn turnover margin would be much, much worse.
Against a team with as much offensive firepower as the Rebels, Auburn simply can't afford very many fumbles. If they do have trouble holding onto the football, Ole Miss will likely make them pay dearly.
Score at Least 30 Points
The last 79 times the Tigers have scored 30-plus points in a game, they're 79-0.
That's simply a stat that doesn't lie. It's impressive.
Before being stopped dead in its tracks against Alabama, the Ole Miss offense was a well-balanced, scoring machine (38 PPG). Come Saturday night, there's more than a good chance that the Rebels will near the 30-point mark at Jordan-Hare.
With that assumption in mind, it becomes paramount the Tigers are able to exchange punches back and forth with Ole Miss. While Ole Miss did get blanked at Bryant-Denny Stadium over the weekend, the defense played admirably against a well-oiled Crimson Tide offense.
Whether that means big kick returns throughout the night by RB Tre Mason, scoring points off of Ole Miss turnovers or anything in between, the Tigers must find a way to eclipse the 30-point mark.
Players to Watch for Ole Miss
FS Cody Prewitt
Junior FS Cody Prewitt is playing like a man on a mission in 2013.
Heading to the Plains, Prewitt leads the SEC in both interceptions per game (0.75) and passes defended per game (1.75). Moreover, he ranks fifth nationally in interceptions.
His 22 tackles rank second on the team behind LB Serderius Bryant's 35 tackles.
Squaring off against a quarterback that's already been picked off four times this season, Prewitt will be licking his chops to haul in a fourth pick in 2013. If QB Nick Marshall is forced into poor decisions, Prewitt could easily be on the receiving end.
QB Bo Wallace
With the Alabama game now in the rear-view mirror, QB Bo Wallace should have a much better go of things this week. In fact, he'll be out to quiet his critics and put up lots of points after being shut down by the Crimson Tide D.
While he won't have to face Alabama LB C.J. Mosley this week, Wallace will be challenged by hybrid safety/linebacker "Star" Robenson Therezie. He's played well thus far in 2013, having recorded 25 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two interceptions.
If Ole Miss can establish a solid running game early against the Tigers, opportunities should open up for Wallace to take some big shots against the Auburn secondary.
RB Jeff Scott
The Miami, Fla. senior is netting 89.5 YPG running the ball through the first four games of the season.
While held to only 28 yards on eight carries at Alabama, Scott is averaging 151 YPG when he's carried the ball 12-plus times in games this year. Fortunately for Ole Miss, he's likely to see 12-plus carries against the Tigers.
Squaring off against an Auburn run defense that's progressively allowed opponents to rush for more yards in each of its first four games (120, 150, 202, 228), Scott should fare well in the contest.
Players to Watch for Auburn
RB Tre Mason
The junior running back is a large part of the reason Auburn currently ranks No. 22 in total rushing at 232.3 YPG. Mason's 84.5 YPG on the ground, supplemented by RB Corey Grant's 59.8 YPG and RB Cameron Artis-Payne's 51.8 YPG rushing helps take pressure of QB Nick Marshall.
While Mason's 9.5 YPG receiving helps the offense, his kick return prowess is lethal.
In six kickoff returns this season, he's averaged 31.7 yards per return.
The last thing Ole Miss needs is let Mason take one to the house on special teams, something he's already done once this season against Washington State.
Out of Ole Miss K Andrew Ritter's 22 kickoffs, 15 of them have resulted in touchbacks and one has gone out of bounds. However, the six times balls have been returned has resulted in an average of 24.8 per return -- not far off Mason's 31.7 return average.
QB Nick Marshall
In short time, Garden City Community College transfer QB Nick Marshall captured the starting quarterback job for the Auburn Tigers. Minus a few fumbles and interceptions, Marshall's play has led the Tigers to a surprising 3-1 start.
Having thrown four interceptions in the past two games, the Ole Miss defense will most likely try and force Marshall to beat them through the air. While his 339-yard passing performance in a 24-20 win over Mississippi State made up for his two interceptions, he can't expect to do the same against the Rebels.
By establishing an early, efficient run game, Marshall would feel less pressed to create plays that may not necessarily be there. However, if the Rebels can stymie the the Tigers on the ground, Marshall will have to take the game into his own hands.
S Robenson Therezie
On a defensive unit that's been marred by injury bug, "Star" Robenson Therezie's play has stood out this season. While he's played various defensive positions over his career, the junior has found a home at the hybrid linebacker/safety position (Star).
Having already earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors once in 2013 for his seven-tackle, two-interception performance against Washington State, Therezie leads the Tigers with both 25 tackles (16 solo) and two interceptions.
Against a talented Ole Miss offense, he'll need to continue his stellar play to slow the Rebels tempo.
What They Are Saying
During his weekly press conference, Hugh Freeze talked about how his freshmen would respond after suffering their first college loss:
One of the things about our program that I hope our kids see is our coaches just don't blink. You have to play the next play. Yesterday, all of us didn't like losing. It's been a while since we lost, compared to a few years back. We came to the team meeting. Sunday's about the truth. We told the truth about the offense, defense and special teams. We put it in the trash and went out and practiced. I was really pleased with the way every one went out and their spirit. I think they'll follow our lead.
Freeze discussed what the Rebels expect to see from Gus Malzahn's club Saturday night:
He's got two weeks to do whatever he's going to do. I know that he'll dress things up and have some wrinkles we haven't seen. We are very, very similar in the things we do offensively. We can help prepare, but you never know exactly what to prepare for. We'll show them everything that our defense wants to see. There will be something we don't cover that we'll see Saturday night.
The offensive-minded Freeze commented on the job his receivers have done blocking down field:
It's been phenomenal. It's as good as I have ever seen and coached. It's still a young season. I'm basing that primarily on the Vanderbilt and Texas games. We didn't get a lot of opportunities the other night to see how they would have done in that game. In the earlier games, it was a good as I've ever seen.
As for the health of his club ahead of traveling to the Plains, Freeze noted:
We're in decent shape for this point in the year. C.J. (Johnson) has an ankle issue. He's been fighting that the whole year. We'll just have to see how that comes around this week. Robert (Nkemdiche) may have broken his finger. That won't result in anything, any time. Carlton Martin didn't make the trip, but we expect him to be able to go this week. Donte (Moncrief) sprained a shoulder, but he ran around yesterday. I expect him to be fine, too.
During Gus Malzahn's weekly press conference, he talked about how injuries have impacted his club:
We’ve had some big blows defensively as far as injuries go. Anytime that happens, especially to impact players, and some of them are definitely impact players, you’ve kind of got to mix and match. Hopefully we’ll stay healthier moving forward and we’ll get some stability and improve.
The first-year Auburn head coach told auburnstigers.com writer Charles Goldberg how the open week may have benefited the team heading into the Ole Miss game:
It had to help our quarterback to slow down and really focus on some things that we feel like we could be strong in. And, really, defensively the same thing. We have a lot of information about our personnel and so we've got a good plan in both areas moving forward for the rest of the season.
Read more here: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2013/10/01/2721306/auburn-notes-gus-malzahn-says.html#storylink=cpy
As high powered as both teams are on offense, defense is what's going to determine the winner.
Entering Saturday's main event, both Auburn and Ole Miss are averaging 28.5 PPG. On defense, the Tigers are giving up an average of 22 PPG while the Rebels are allowing opponents 24 PPG.
Quite possibly the biggest difference between the two clubs entering this weekend is total defense.
Currently, the Auburn defense is giving up 439.5 YPG, while the Ole Miss D is only allowing 358 YPG. That's an 82 yard difference and roughly the equivalent of a single scoring drive beginning at the 20 yard line.
Facing an offense as lethal as the Rebels, it'll be vital that the Auburn D step up on Saturday.
Two matchups to pay close attention to will be the Tigers rushing attack (232.2 YPG) against the Rebels run defense (149.2 YPG) and the Ole Miss passing game (219.8 YPG) against the Auburn pass defense (264.5 YPG). If one team is able to best the other in both aforementioned battles, look for the eighth double-digit win in the last 10 games between the two programs.
If say the Rebels slow RB Tre Mason and the Tigers rushing attack, but the Tigers stymie QB Bo Wallace and the Rebel receiving corps, then the punting game could become a key in the game.
Yes, I said the punting game.
Auburn punter Steven Clark has performed admirably thus far in 2013, having only allowed one punt to actually be returned out of 19 total punts. As deadly as punt returner Jeff Scott has been this fall, Clark being able to keep the ball out of Scott's hands could be huge for Auburn.
In terms of Ole Miss P Tyler Campbell, he's been equally as efficient as his Auburn counterpart. In fact, Campbell currently ranks No. 3 in the nation in punting with an average of 47.5 YPP. The senior's punting prowess at Jordan-Hare Stadium could help force the Auburn offense to go further to score.
While I expect a back and forth contest for a while, I believe a very solid Ole Miss defense comes out of the half having made the changes necessary to slow down the Tigers. Only four games into 2013, the Tigers have already put the ball on the ground 12 times (losing four of them).
Auburn scores some points, but with an added year of experience under their belts in Freeze's up-tempo offense, the Rebels play more efficient and effective than an upstart Auburn club still learning a complex offensive system.
Ole Miss 37 - Auburn 27