AUBURN, Ala. — There aren’t many things Auburn’s defense does worse than every other team in the SEC.
The Tigers are in the top 5 in the conference in total defense, passing defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. They allow the second-fewest plays of 10-plus yards and the second-fewest number of points, behind only Florida in both areas.
But, in one category, Auburn ranks worse than every other SEC team: interceptions. Carlton Davis has an out-of-the-ordinary explanation for that.
“It’s kind of hard to get picks when the defensive line is just all over the quarterback,” Davis said. “I don’t think we should really change anything. If interceptions come our way, we just have to make the most of that opportunity and take them.”
Auburn’s defensive backs have missed a few chances. Josh Holsey dropped an easy one Saturday against Arkansas. A Carl Lawson interception was called off because of an offsides penalty.
But Davis’ argument is one of merit.
Auburn’s rich defensive front hasn’t provided many opportunities for offenses to make consequential plays in the passing game. The Tigers have rarely let the “top off the coverage,” like defensive coordinator Kevin Steele regularly mentions.
Against Ole Miss, the secondary is expecting a more necessary role.
“They throw a lot of deep-shot balls and a lot of those balls are, you go get it, if you don’t get it, it’ll be interference and there’s a lot of that takes place in college football now. And so it is an issue,” Steele said. “That’s why you have to win early in the down on them. You have to win with technique early in the down so it doesn’t put you in the position there. Make them work to get to that position.”
The Rebels offensive leads the conference in passing plays of 20-plus yards with 31. Conversely, Auburn is fourth in the SEC in such plays, only allowing 23 pass plays to cover 20 yards or more.
After back-to-back games against downhill-style offenses, Auburn will now prepare for a spread-you-out, send-it-vertical approach. The Tigers have faced passing game pressures from Deshaun Watson and Trevor Knight, but Chad Kelly and his four-wide weapons create a game plan Auburn’s defense isn’t as familiar with season.
“Their quarterback’s one of the more explosive guys in our league,” Gus Malzahn said. “Does a very good job throwing the vertical ball down the field. Does a very good job of making plays outside the system with his feet.”
Even if turnovers don’t come, the Tigers are still looking to limit the Ole Miss passing game more than most defenses have.
The Rebels lead the SEC with 305.4 yard per game through the air. At home, Ole Miss is even better at 338.5 yards per contest. Kelly enters the game Saturday coming of two of his three lowest passing yardage totals this season. He’ll likely be itching to make plays downfield.
Likewise, Auburn’s defenders will be up and ready to force Kelly into a third-straight struggle.
“It’s definitely a different challenge knowing that they’ll take shots no matter how good the coverage is. But I see it as an opportunity for me to make something out of it,” Davis said. “That’s really a good thing for me when quarterbacks have a lot of confidence in their receivers. It just allows me to make plays and play my brand of football.”