AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn doesn’t put any stock in Ole Miss’ 3-4 record heading into Auburn’s Saturday matchup with the Rebels. He’s focused on two other sets of numbers for the Rebels inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
First, Ole Miss is 3-1 at home this season and has scored 38, 43, 45 and 48 points there. Second, the Rebels have trailed zero times at the halftime break in 2016.
Those stats have pushed Malzahn to emphasize one thing Auburn has improved over the last few games — starting off well, because these Rebels come out firing in the first half.
“What we’ve been telling our team is that we need to get off to a fast start,” Malzahn said Thursday evening on his weekly Tiger Talk radio show. “We’ve done that the last couple of weeks. We need to continue to do that. I think that’ll be a big factor in the game.”
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In the last three games, Auburn has outscored its opponents 91-10 in the first half, with the only touchdown coming on a last-minute drive by Sun Belt opponent Louisiana-Monroe. Points haven’t been hard to come by since Malzahn gave play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
But the Rebels have also been high-scoring this season, especially in Oxford, thanks in large part to the strengths of quarterback Chad Kelly. The senior leads the SEC in passing yards per game (295.3) and has scored a total of 18 touchdowns in seven games.
“Their quarterback is extremely athletic,” Malzahn said. “He’s like a running back there. They have a lot of called runs. The thing about it is that they’ll throw the ball down the field. They’re going to take their shots. They play with tempo. They score a lot of points against a lot of good defenses.”
While Ole Miss has some major deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, it has a lot of firepower on offense. Kelly is surrounded by several talented receivers, including Damore’ea Stringfellow, Van Jefferson, Quincy Adeboyejo and A.J. Brown.
But Kelly’s top receiver so far this season is tight end Evan Engram, who Malzahn praised extensively Thursday night. Engram has recorded 40 catches for an SEC-leading 605 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns this season.
“Engram is outstanding. I love to watch him play,” Malzahn said. “He’s so versatile. He’s one of the most versatile guys in probably the country. He’s able to block, he’s able to stretch the field. He’s very savvy.”
Although Ole Miss will be a rare home underdog in SEC play Saturday night, Malzahn is planning for a tough challenge. The Rebels were ranked nationally right up until the latest edition of the major polls thanks to their strength of schedule and performances at home against quality competition.
“They almost beat Alabama. They were up 45-0 against Georgia. That’s some talented teams there,” Malzahn said. “(Ole Miss’ record) is real deceiving, there’s no doubt. They’re an outstanding team, one of the more talented teams in our league.”