Early in the year, the Ole Miss offense was keeping the Rebels in games.
Saturday night, the shoe was on the other foot. The Rebels' defense bowed their necks, thanks to a "new" beefed-up look, and kept the contest close to the very end, but the offense couldn't reciprocate against the stubborn Tiger defense.
Thus, a 17-3 setback, and a very familiar feeling.
"It's getting really old to keep playing tight games and coming up on the short end of the stick," said Offensive Coordinator Dan Werner. "On our side the of the ball, we just didn't execute when we had the chances too.
"I credit Auburn's defense, but we had openings, we had our shots, but we seemed to constantly shoot ourselves in the foot at critical times. We'd either drop a pass, make a bad pass or get a crucial penalty at the worst times or not protect well."
Dan said Auburn's defense did exactly what he thought they would - bend but not break. When that is the case, you have to execute almost perfectly to succeed.
"Their plan was to make us drive the ball. They were not going to let us beat them deep. They played cover two all night and took the long ball away," he explained. "I guess their plan was successful because we were far from perfect, obviously.
"The bottom line was that we did not get the job done. We had some quality moments, but not enough of them."
Down 10-3 midway through the fourth quarter, the Rebels started a possession on their own 1-yard line.
They were able to march 80 yards - normally enough for a score, but a Brent Schaeffer - who was in for injured QB Seth Adams - aerial into the end zone, intended to be a throw away, was picked off by Tiger CB Patrick Lee.
"Credit Auburn. They felt they could handle us with their front four and make us execute. We finally put something pretty good together, but on the end of the drive, we threw a pick," Werner continued. "It was a good gameplan by them and our execution was not good enough.
"Brent was actually trying to throw the ball away because he was under a heavy rush. Shay Hodge was in the far corner of the end zone and Brent felt he could throw it through the end zone, but the corner somehow got to the throw. Shay ran the right route and Brent did what he was supposed to do in terms of his decision-making, but the execution wasn't good. He should have been able to throw it into the stands or a lot wider where the corner couldn't get it."
As the game progressed, Werner and the offensive staff realized they were going to have to max protect to give Adams or Schaeffer time to throw. That accomplished that goal, but it limited what they could do in routes.
"We had to keep extra guys in to block against their four-man rush and occasional stunt so we couldn't get as many guys out in routes as we wanted to. We weren't getting a lot of people open during one stretch of the game. It's tough to throw the ball when they are able to get pressure with a four-man rush."
In the end, it was what Werner calls "drive stoppers" that were the undoing for the offense.
"On the very first drive, we had a third-and-short and dropped a perfect pass. Later, we had a hold on a third-and-short when we got the first down in their territory. We had several plays like that during the day. Those are drive stoppers and they just kill you."
On the defensive side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator John Thompson had mixed emotions.
On one hand, the objective is to win. That mission was not accomplished. On the other, the defense turned in one of their better performances and kept the Rebels in the hard-fought, physical battle.
"I'm proud of our guys. They just hung in there and hung in there. They played hard and fought for 60 minutes, but we gave up too many third downs in the second half to win and they hit us with a big play at the end where we had a couple of blitzers come free and didn't quite get there in time," he began. "We made some plays and did some things well, but not enough. We still did not win and that is the only thing that matters in the end."
Auburn seemed content to run the football and mix in a couple of reverses and throw the ball only when necessary. The Tigers ended up rushing for 231 yards and throwing for 189, but they were tough yards in a very hard-hitting contest.
"I hurt for these players because I thought our guys did all they could from an effort standpoint. Auburn played well, but our guys did too. It was a pretty classic SEC defensive game until they popped that late score on us," J.T. noted. "Again, our kids fought. Their pride was hurt last week against Arkansas. They regrouped and I knew they were going to put everything on the line this week. We had a great week of practice - they were very focused and determined, but we just didn't play quite good enough."
The Rebel D had some personnel shakeups. First, LEO Greg Hardy was suspended for the game due to disciplinary reasons. The defensive coaches opted for a bigger body in senior Viciente' DeLoach to play defensive end while moving Marcus Tillman from DE to LEO. Junior MLB Tony Fein got his first start and beefed up the LB slots while recording 16 tackles. SS Jamarca Sanford was back in the lineup and Johnny Brown, who had taken Sanford's place while Jamarca was injured, was moved to free safety. Also frosh NT Lawon Scott played a lot of snaps in the middle.
"We just went with the next guys and they stepped up. Viciente' did a nice job as well as Tony and Johnny Brown. Tony has played better and better. Having Jamarca back was big for us. Ashlee Palmer played well and so did Jamie Phillips, Peria Jerry and Johnny Brown. Heck, I could talk about all the kids all night long. Really, they were really close to being exceptional tonight and they played well," Thompson stated. "There was nothing magical we did - we just went with the next best players and they performed well.
"We only played three guys at LB, they played every snap and really tackled well. I thought our tackling in the open space was the best we had all year. We were running downhill, making the hit, wrapping up and getting guys on the ground in a hurry. We even knocked some balls loose some."
J.T. had extra praise for Fein.
"He has worked hard. He had to adjust to this league and the fact this game is not as easy as junior college. He's kept fighting. Tony hasn't gotten his head down even though he hasn't made the kind of impact he wanted to yet. I am pleased with the progress he has made the past few weeks," he added.
Most feel this was the best defensive outing of the year for the Rebels, but Thompson - going back to the theme of winning is all that matters - was not having much of those notions.
"As I said, I am really proud of the way we fought and played, but it wasn't good enough. None of us will look at it in the terms of being our best defensive outing because we lost and we all know we could have done more," he ended. "We played well, but not well enough to win. We have to make another step.
"We competed, but there was never any doubt of that, but there's more to it than competing. We have to compete and perform. We'll get there. That is our next step."
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