OXFORD, Miss. — Auburn’s performance Saturday night against Ole Miss sparked plenty of flashbacks to past Gus Malzahn teams. Some of those were good, and some of those were exceptionally bad.
An Auburn defense that looked like one of the best in the SEC for the first eight weeks of the regular season couldn’t keep up with the passing attack of Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly. The Tigers climbed toward the wrong kind of defensive records for the majority of the night and looked like the defenses that have dominated the post-Tommy Tuberville era.
But the positives from Auburn’s more successful recent teams — clutch defensive plays in the second half, slick offensive play-calls and overall execution when it mattered most — earned the Tigers a 40-29 road win against a tough Ole Miss squad. The overall defensive numbers won’t inspire much confidence, but Auburn got the job done for its fifth straight win of 2016.
Now, let’s hand out some Sunday grades for each positional unit for Auburn.
After a quiet week against Arkansas, Sean White got back to business against Ole Miss. He completed 68 percent of his passes for 247 yards, and he didn’t have many bad misses. Twelve of his 15 completions — which went to eight different receivers — went for first downs or a touchdown.
But a couple of White’s biggest plays of the game came on the ground. He scrambled on a third-and-13 play to pick up a crucial first down in the third quarter. Three plays later, he threw his only touchdown pass of the game to give Auburn a 27-22 lead. That play swung momentum for Auburn’s offense after a couple of lackluster drives to start the second half. White made key plays when needed, which is what has defined his excellent run as a starter during this winning streak.
Running Backs: A
Kamryn Pettway keeps finding a way to one-up himself. The sophomore set a new career-high for his third straight game by rushing for 236 yards on 30 carries against Ole Miss. The Rebels’ shaky run defense had a hard time bringing him down, and that was evident on the first drive of the game. He is firmly in the lead for the SEC’s rushing title — and he didn’t even have a carry in two games.
Kerryon Johnson made his return from an ankle injury to show he’s as versatile as ever. Both of his touchdown carries came off of direct snaps in the Wildcat formation. Although he was able to spring only one explosive run against Ole Miss, he was able to get the tough yards, especially in a formation that gives defenses trouble before the snap.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B
Even without senior leading receiver Tony Stevens, who was held out because of an unknown injury, Auburn still got a lot of production from its wide receivers. True freshman Eli Stove was the top receiver with 5 receptions, and redshirt freshman Darius Slayton led the team with 53 yards.
White spread the ball through the air to a number of familiar and not-so-familiar — at least for this season — names. Marcus Davis was more involved in the passing attack. Jason Smith recorded his first catch of the season. Jalen Harris had Auburn’s first completion to a tight end in 21 games off of a familiar Gus Malzahn trick play. Although there were a few drops and misplayed balls, this unit came up big more often than not.
Offensive Line: B
It wasn’t quite the same dominant performance the Tigers had up front against Mississippi State and Arkansas. But Auburn still rushed for 307 yards on 52 carries against Ole Miss and only allowed 1 sack. The Tigers had only 6 negative plays Saturday night, with only one going for more than a loss of 2 yards.
Veteran guard Alex Kozan had a couple of rare false start penalties in the span of three plays. There was a major protection breakdown in the sack from Fadol Brown as well. However, Auburn’s offensive line continues to be the primary aggressor during this winning streak, and that continued in clutch moments for a 40-29 win away from home. Those are almost always tough to come by in the SEC West.
Defensive Line: B-
It took a while for Auburn’s defensive line to make its big breakthrough against Ole Miss. The Rebels focused on getting the ball out of Chad Kelly’s hands as quickly as possible. That plan worked to perfection in the first half. But when Auburn made the necessary adjustments in the second half, the line started to impose its will on the Rebels.
Several of Auburn’s big plays up front came down to the amazing depth of the front four. Reserve defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence had a fourth-down stop in the third quarter just outside the Auburn end zone. Backup Buck defensive end Jeff Holland came up with a key sack after halftime. Auburn was able to rotate a lot up front against a pace-minded offense, and it stood out in a stronger second half.
Auburn’s linebackers got picked on in coverage over the middle of the field, especially in the first half. The Tigers were too slow on Kelly’s quick passes to big targets such as tight end Evan Engram, who had 5 of his 9 catches in the first quarter. Those miscues opened up more things on the ground for Ole Miss, and Auburn looked scrambled at linebacker for a long time.
Some surprising missed tackles turned into big plays for the Rebels as well. Auburn had to deal with an injury to junior Tre’ Williams in the contest, but Deshaun Davis (10 tackles) stepped up after halftime. While this was Auburn’s worst linebacker performance of the season, the unit showcased its overall improvement from years past by adjusting and leading in a stronger second half.
Defensive Backs: D+
There’s no way around it — this unit got carved up for most of the game. Kelly threw for more yards in the first half (297) than Auburn had allowed in any game in 2016. Star cornerback Carlton Davis got picked on in coverage as the star Ole Miss quarterback found his targets over and over again in 1-on-1 coverage. Like the linebackers, the secondary had a few missed tackles that turned into explosive gains for the home team.
Senior cornerback Josh Holsey was the lone bright spot on a dark night of pass defense for Auburn. He had 5 pass breakups and a game-changing interception in the fourth quarter. While those around him were giving up chunks of yardage, Holsey played one of the best games of his career. He’s the plus mark in what was a subpar performance from Auburn’s pass defense.
Special Teams: B+
After two blowout games in which he wasn’t needed for much more than extra points and kickoffs, Daniel Carlson showcased his clutch play against Ole Miss. All but one of his four field goals either gave Auburn the lead or extended it. His two high-pressure tries in the fourth quarter were automatic. Carlson now ranks fourth nationally in field goals made and percentage for the season.
Punter Kevin Phillips had a decent showing with his two tries, with one of them traveling 50 yards. Montravius Adams blocked an early extra point. Ole Miss took some chances with deep kickoff returns Saturday night and sprung a big one in the fourth quarter. When Rudy Ford tried to do something similar in the first quarter, Ole Miss rocked him at the 10-yard line.
Rhett Lashlee continues to shine as Auburn’s offensive play-caller. Each week, the Tigers seem to have a few wrinkles that turn into big plays. The touchdown pass to Harris and a different kind of six-man offensive line package were two of the tweaks that worked well for Lashlee. With his play-calling, Auburn was able to punch back with an explosive Ole Miss offense all night long and deliver in the fourth quarter.
Kevin Steele and the defensive staff were in a world of trouble in the first half against Ole Miss after the Rebels changed their downfield philosophy for a bunch of quick-hitters. But the adjustments Auburn made in the second half helped the Tigers hold Ole Miss to just 7 second-half points. This Auburn team has the look of ones that excelled in tense games under Malzahn in 2013 and the early part of 2014.