Building Momentum

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PHOTO BY ROBERT NOLES / THE OBSERVER

AU Defense, Run Game Step Up in Ole Miss Victory

BY WIL CREWS
SPORTSCREWS@OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

The Auburn defense held No. 10 Ole Miss to just three second half points and Tank Bigsby had his best performance of 2021 in the Tiger’s 31-20 win over the Rebels last Saturday.

The victory was Auburn’s first win over a top-10 opponent since 2019 (defeated No. 5 Alabama, 48-45), and proved what the Tigers are capable of when they put together a complete team performance.

Coming into the game, the experts (and myself, humble brag) predicted that the Auburn defense would need to employ a bend-don’t-break mentality and, given the Rebel’s subpar defense, that the Tiger’s success offensively should be driven through time of possession and the tree-trunk-sized legs of Bigsby.

Surprisingly enough, that’s exactly what happened.

The Tiger’s offense held the ball for 33.5 minutes of the game compared to the Rebel’s 26.5, and Bigsby finished with 141 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries.

Furthermore, while the banged-up Ole Miss offense was able to move the ball with some consistency — posting a respectable 457 total yards — the Auburn defense indicated early and often that touchdowns would be hard to come by, thwarting the Rebels from points in the red zone on four of their eight trips.

In contrast, Auburn went five-for-five on its red zone’s trips — the true difference in the game. The efficiency on the business end of the field began on the Tiger’s first drive, which resulted in a touchdown for the sixth time this season. Credit goes to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo for crafting first-possession scripts which build confidence within the players and feed Auburn’s momentum from the onset.

As the game went along, more attention was put on stopping Bigsby, and things began to open up for Bo Nix. The junior continued to build on his recent performances and finished with 238 passing yards (passing Brandon Cox for third all-time at Auburn) and one touchdown on 22-of-30 passing. He also added 46 yards on the ground and rushed for two touchdowns on misdirection QB-keepers near the goal line — his specialty.

When things did begin to lull for the Tigers in the second half, punter Oscar Champan helped Auburn win the field position battle by averaging 56 yards per punt.

All told, however, Auburn’s offense looked better than that of the Rebels Saturday — something that had rarely if ever been said this season.

The defense, which held Ole Miss to one-for-four on fourth down and just three second half points, was clearly better — but that was less of a surprise.

Individually, Zakoby McClain led the defense with 14 tackles and a career high two sacks. Jaylin Simpson’s stepped up in a big way with a fourth quarter, game-sealing interception — the first of his career.  And the return of middle linebacker Owen Pappoe and edge rusher T.D. Moultry made a notable difference as well.

Offensively, Kobe Hudson had a career high in receptions (6) and yards (79), but gave away what could have been a costly fumble in the fourth quarter. One of only four players to catch a ball, Demetris Robertson, also muffed a punt to turn the ball over to the Rebels. Against better teams (i.e. Alabama), mistakes like that will be punished.

For now, it’s on to a road test versus No. 13 Texas A&M. Bryan Harsin’s Tigers have moved up to No. 12 in the AP Poll still control their own destiny in terms of winning the SEC. It’s clear the performances are getting better and more consistent. If the defense continues to improve, Bigsby gets unleashed and Nix keeps having fun, Auburn has a dart-throw chance at the college football playoff.

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