By PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The nation was on “upset alert” on Saturday, its awareness increased by a national media that seemed lathered up about the Rebels’ chances against BCS No. 1 Auburn.
There were some factors that could have made Auburn vulnerable, the emotion spent in last week’s 24-17 win over LSU, it’s suddenly lofty BCS status and simply playing a road night game.
Catching an opponent at a good time is one thing. You still have to be good enough to take advantage of that vulnerability. There were two problems at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday night. Auburn was on top of its game, and Ole Miss showed some of the issues that have plagued it all year, primarily defense and special teams.
The Rebels gave Auburn their best shot in the first half, 268 yards and 17 points, but it wasn’t nearly enough to stay on the field with the Tigers, who were almost half-way to 700 yards and and 34 points after two quarters.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt has been criticized for his play-calling, but the plan was what it needed to be against Saturday night.
With an Ole Miss offensive line that is not only young but also wounded, the Rebels weren’t equipped for success with a traditional run game. They weren’t about to pound the middle.
Nutt worked the edges of the run game, and Jeff Scott had more than 100 yards in the first half, most of them on an 83-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli threw short passes and moved the football that way.
But while there was effort involved for the Ole Miss offense, things came more easily for Auburn.
The other things the Rebels did were, unfortunately, some of the same things they’ve done all year – let opportunities slip away and give up big plays.
Part of Auburn’s 34 first-half was a 95-yard kick return by Demond Washington, a one-time Ole Miss verbal commit. It marked the second time in two weeks the Rebels have allowed a 90-plus yard special teams touchdown.
Defensively, the Rebels couldn’t create a timely big play. While the game was being decided in the first half, Auburn was 7 for 9 on third-down conversions, including a 29-yard gain on third-and-14.
As for opportunity, the Rebels missed a golden one in the second quarter when Jason Jones recovered a fumble by Auburn tailback Onterrio McCalebb at the Tigers’ 18. Down 17-14, they could have tied the game or gone ahead.
Nutt went for the big strike on first down, and the pass was incomplete. He went to the same play again, and Washington picked off the pass intended for Markeith Summers at the 2.
If there’s blame for Nutt in the game, it’s with a defense that hasn’t played to expectations this season.
The effort was there, the tackling much better than last week at Arkansas when Knile Davis ran wild against the Rebels. But receivers ran free in the secondary, and Newton found them.
Auburn’s quarterback showcased his arm against Ole Miss, not his feet that had him leading the SEC in rushing. Newton also caught a touchdown pass and did not nothing to endanger his status in the minds of many as Heisman Trophy frontrunner. He had some nifty runs after halftime, perhaps just to show he could.
The defensive plan was also the right call. It was to gang tackle Newton and make him win with his arm. Newton didn’t kill the Rebels on the ground but proved his passing skills were up to the challenge.
As a result, Auburn remains perfect.
Ole Miss remains average while trying to recapture a spark that could help it play a cleaner football game and put itself in position for bowl eligibility.
In that regard, time’s a wasting.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.