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Defense looks to carry momentum into Auburn

The Ole Miss defense that showed up against Texas A&M last week didn’t look like the unit that struggled so much against the other quality opponents it had seen up to that point.

A defense with two new cornerbacks and a new middle linebacker didn’t offer much resistance against the passing games of Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida and Memphis, and the coverage and tackling only got worse when Tony Conner and C.J. Johnson went down with knee injuries.

The 19th-ranked Rebels entered last week’s game against the Southeastern Conference’s second-ranked passing offense No. 12 in the league against the pass, yet it played out nothing like the mismatch it appeared to be on paper. Getting an emotional lift from Johnson’s return, Ole Miss was locked in, sticking to receivers to limit the Aggies to 134 yards through the air and get off the field on third down more times than not in a 23-3 win that kept its Western Division title hopes alive for another week.

While the Rebels could hope for some help should they lose again, their best bet to play in Atlanta the first Saturday in December is to win out starting with a trip to Auburn on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN). The Rebels (6-2, 3-1 SEC) score more points per game than anybody in the SEC, and a defense that’s been maligned for much of the season is entering the second half of the conference season with renewed confidence that it can do its part.

“We didn’t play hard the Memphis game, and I think we put that in the trash,” said senior safety Trae Elston, referring to the loss the week before in which Ole Miss allowed nearly 500 total yards.

“I think it’s a whole new Ole Miss group we’ve got here.”

Ole Miss held off on full-scale tackling during practice the first half of the season in order to try to prevent further injuries, but a whopping 30 missed tackles against Memphis left the Rebels with no choice but to go back to tackling circuits last week, which helped them cut the number of whiffs against A&M to 11.

There’s more work to be done — “I still think 11 tackles is a lot of missed tackles,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said — but it’s a start for a group that’s working to get back to its old self.

“Everybody was swarming to the ball, so if a guy missed a tackle, you had another guy coming in to hit him anyway,” Elston said. “If one guy missed a tackle in the Memphis game, it was a 10-yard gain. We missed a tackle last week, it was like a 1-yard gain.”

Now the challenge is to try to take that success on the road against the Tigers (4-3, 1-3), who find themselves in last place in the Western Division standings after being ranked No. 6 nationally in the preseason.

‘Balanced’ offense
The emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Sean White and running back Peyton Barber has brought some life to Auburn’s offense, which still relies heavily on its running game to set up shots down the field. Barber, a one-time Ole Miss commit, is fifth in the SEC in rushing (110 yards per game) and has accounted for 12 touchdowns for an offense averaging nearly 27 points a game in league play.

“They’re balanced enough that you’ve got to defend both,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “Their pass plays, typically (Auburn coach Gus Malzahn) has got some that are explosive because of the way they smoke and mirror you with all the runs and then run a wheel route on you or a post route or a double move. He’s got some good stuff, and they get you in some one-on-ones.”