As Ole Miss inches closer to Saturday's meeting with No. 3 Auburn, most media outlets have centered on a high-powered Tiger offense, led by quarterback Cameron Newton, vs. a much-maligned Rebel defense. Newton, a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, has accounted for more touchdowns than any player in college football.
But opposite Newton, and facing Sowell and his offense, is a defense stout in its own right. Auburn ranks 16th nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 103.4 yards per game, and has not allowed a rush of more than 26 yards all season.
"Their defense is just as good as their offense, in my opinion," Sowell said.
Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, an imposing presence, leads the Southeastern Conference and is third in the nation in tackles for loss (17.0). As a team, Auburn is among the best teams in the country in tackles for loss, averaging 7.5 TFLs per game.
"They're just a typical, big, strong SEC defensive line," Sowell said. "It's just one of those Alabama type defensive lines, Auburn. You always know you're going to play a big, physical defensive line."
Containing Fairley and company won't be easy, especially for an Ole Miss offensive line that has seen turnover on an almost weekly basis. Left guard Patrick Junen, injured against Arkansas, practiced both Tuesday and Wednesday – a needed boost considering the unit's lack of depth.
"We're playing with a lot of young guys and guys who shouldn't even be in there," Sowell said. "But we're all getting better and we all know we have this year together and next year together. We're just trying to get better as a unit and keep going."
In losses to Alabama and Arkansas, Ole Miss had no trouble racking up yards. However, poor first-half performances, as well as ineffectiveness in the red zone, led to the team combining for all of 34 points.
Sowell said, offensively, Ole Miss has to stop beating itself. Even more, the Rebels must capitalize on their opportunities.
"The thing with our team right now, we've got to start clicking on both sides together," he said. "When the defense is doing good, our offense has to do good. We can't have our defense killing and our offense doing bad.
"If we start playing as a team and stop killing ourselves, we have a good ball team."
Playing a complete game has been a recurring theme this week, but for good reason. Sowell said collective inconsistency is the only thing holding a 3-4 (1-3 SEC) Ole Miss team back.
"That's all it is, man," he said. "There's some signs of when we look really good, and then there's some signs of when we look really bad. In the first half (against Arkansas), if we were playing half as good as our defense, we'd be in the game. Alabama game, if we could have gotten anything going early, we'd be in the game. Whenever we put it all together, we feel like we'll have a good ball club."
Sawyer: 'Play like the old Rebels'
Charles Sawyer, asked of how Ole Miss can rectify its tackling woes, was open and honest Wednesday.
"Tackling and working your ass off. That's all," he said.
Through seven games, the Rebels have been vulnerable to surrendering explosion plays. Ole Miss has given up touchdowns of 85 yards, 71 yards and 22 yards just in the last two weeks. Another big play, a 46-yard completion from Ryan Mallett to D.J. Williams, set up another score in a 38-24 loss to Arkansas.
"It's pretty frustrating, but we know we can do it," Sawyer said. "We've just got to come on Saturday and just know, when you wake up, that you're going to own the man in front of you. That's all it is."
Sound fundamentals and sure tackling will be needed Saturday against Auburn. Newton, standing 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, is easily the most dynamic player Ole Miss has faced this season. A four-time SEC offensive player of the week, Newton has accounted for 14 touchdowns on the ground alone.
"With him, he's a big dude," Sawyer said. "He's way, way more athletic than the other ones (we've faced). So we've just got to tackle. Much better tackling. We've just gotta play the way we know how to play. Play like the old Rebels – gang tackling and just not letting people run all over us."
Sawyer routinely stays late after practice. He's a grinder, devoted to improving his craft. Be it early or late, he remains on the field, working on his footwork, staying low and his hands. He catches football after football, however many reps it takes to get it right.
"I'm getting better. I can see that I'm getting better," he said. "But I've got work to do. I'm not going to be anywhere close to where I want to be until I'm done with the game. I'm gonna keep on going."
Lately, though, the extra work is somewhat of a byproduct of his lack of turnovers this season. Sawyer was billed as a big-play threat, a sure-to-be star in the making. He's been solid, getting better with every bit of game action thrown his way.
But the fireworks haven't been there.
"It takes time," Sawyer said. "You've got to be in the right place at the right time. I just gotta keep watching film so it makes it easier for me in the game. I rep it, I rep it, I rep it in practice, so in a game it makes it that much easier."
He won't admit it, but Sawyer is probably doing even more this week.
Auburn is a well-oiled machine offensively. Sawyer, like his teammates, can't afford to be out of position or blow many, if any, assignments. So he goes to work, the lights soon to be turned off inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
"I'm just doing the little things to get an edge on my opponent," he said.