Facing the SEC’s most proficient passing offense was a challenge Auburn’s secondary embraced in the days leading up to Saturday’s matchup against Ole Miss in Oxford.
Defensive back Carlton Davis called it an “opportunity” for the group to prove it was one of the best in the SEC.
“It’s what I signed up for,” Davis said of facing the league’s top quarterback Chad Kelly.
Kelly won most of the battles against Auburn’s secondary, but lost the war in a 40-29 win at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday night.
“Big ups to those guys,” Davis said after the game. “They came ready to play.”
Kelly had more passing yards by halftime (275) than the secondary had allowed in a game all season (260).
Not only did he set a new career-high against Auburn, but the senior’s 465 passing yards a new school record as well.
While opposing quarterbacks have largely avoided targeting Davis this season, Kelly tested Davis on Ole Miss’ first drive with a completion down the sidelines to Damore’ea Stringfellow.
Davis whiffed twice on the play — misreading the back shoulder throw and missing the tackle.
It wasn’t the only lowlight for Davis, but there were plenty of them to go around.
Auburn safeties Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews struggled covering Ole Miss tight ends. Evan Engram did most of the damage with nine catches for 95 yards with a touchdown, but fellow tight end Taz Zettergren had a long gain in the first quarter at Roberts’ expense.
Matthews was out of position on the next play for Kelly’s 26-yard touchdown pass to DaMarkus Lodge.
True freshman Daniel Thomas allowed Ole Miss to get in field goal range late in the second quarter when the defensive back bit on a double move.
Auburn made a number of adjustments at halftime aimed at slowing Kelly down. The changes didn’t pay dividends until the fourth quarter when the defense held Ole Miss to 45 yards and 1 of 4 on third down attempts.
“We had to tighten up our coverage, play a little better and make some adjustments to give our offense a chance to win the game,” Davis said.
Davis said the focus was on limiting one-on-one matchups in coverage while showing Kelly different looks at the line of scrimmage to try to “confuse them a little bit.”
An additional point of emphasis for the secondary was adjusting to the pace of Ole Miss’ offense that rattled off 90 plays.
“We gave up too many yards with quick gains,” Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey said. “I think that was kind of their game plan to take our d-line out of the game, which they did in the first half and that helped them a lot.”
Beyond the technical adjustments, Holsey also credited the secondary’s mental approach in the turnaround. The group’s many failures Saturday night didn’t bleed into the next snap.
“If Chad sees that you are down he’s going to go right back at you if you make the play or not,” Holsey said. “They don’t care if you make a play or not. I made a play and he came right back to me. It’s really important especially in a game where they are going to throw it 30 to 40 times. He’s going to give you a chance to make a play.”
The thought was in Holsey’s head on a fourth quarter interception that coach Gus Malzahn called “the play of the game.”
“Coach Crime (Wes McGriff) just tells us somebody needs to go out on the field and make a play,” Holsey said. “It just so happened I was the one to go out and make the play and it happened to be a pick. It feels good to help my team win especially on the road against a great team like Ole Miss. We knew we were going to have to fight for it.”