Tigers score 38.6 points per game; Rebels allow 32 points per game
By DAVID BRANDT
AP Sports Writer
OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi’s defense hasn’t had much success stopping anybody this season, giving up a Southeastern Conference-worst 32 points per game.
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And it doesn’t get easier this weekend. Cameron Newton, the athletic 6-foot-6, 250-pound Auburn quarterback, is coming to town.
Newton is a Heisman Trophy contender after a string of seemingly unstoppable performances that have vaulted the Tigers (8-0, 5-0 SEC) to the top spot in the latest BCS standings.
The list of Newton’s superlatives is long: He is leading the SEC with 134.6 rushing yards per game; he is the league’s most efficient passer; and he leads the nation with 14 rushing touchdowns.
“He’s a triple threat, all the way around, because of handing if off, running and throwing,” Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said. “He’s brought the offense alive because you’ve got that kind of weapon and that kind of leader and all those intangibles.”
But Mississippi (3-4, 1-3) is trying not to focus on Newton’s numbers. Instead, the Rebels say they must start tackling better, which was a sore spot during Saturday’s 38-24 loss to Arkansas.
Razorbacks’ running back Knile Davis rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns, including one that went for 71 yards after multiple missed tackles. The Rebels also gave up a 97-yard punt return.
“It’s missed tackles,” Nutt said. “It’s fundamentals. You can’t have three missed tackles in our league or that back is going to go the distance … It’s such a backbreaker. It hurts the momentum and hurts everything when you’re sitting there fighting and you’re so close. And then you give up that kind of big, explosive play.”
It’s doubtful Mississippi will get away with many tackling mistakes against Auburn’s offense, which leads the SEC in scoring with 38.6 points per game. Newton’s sheer size has caused matchup problems for opposing defenses, with two, three or four players needed to drag his powerful body to the ground.
Mississippi defensive tackle Jerrell Powe, who weighs 320 pounds, said there isn’t any secret to bringing down a big man.
“Hit him low,” Powe said. “And then wrap him up.”
That’s good advice, though it obviously hasn’t been that easy for opponents.
Newton rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns against LSU’s vaunted defense on Saturday during a 24-17 victory. He’s rushed for at least 176 yards in each of the past four games — including three against SEC competition.
Considering Mississippi’ recent defensive woes, a mismatch appears certain. But Auburn center Ryan Pugh said the Tigers weren’t going to assume anything. Their No. 3 ranking is the program’s highest since 2006.
“Nothing’s guaranteed in this league,” he said. “You’ve got to go out and work every day for it.”
Though Newton’s strength will be impossible for Mississippi to duplicate, the Rebel defense is used to dealing with mobile quarterbacks. Starter Jeremiah Masoli is second behind Newton in rushing yards for an SEC quarterback. Randall Mackey, who is leading the scout team, is also a fast quarterback who can run just as well as he throws.
Shackelford said practicing against Mackey and Masoli will help, but he wasn’t particularly worried about the gameplan or going against a running quarterback. In his mind, success or failure will be determined by one thing — tackling.
“Everybody’s getting to the ball, but we’ve got to be more disciplined,” Shackelford said. “If you’re supposed to be in a gap, stay in the gap. Make this tackle. You don’t have to do much more than that, but you’ve got to do your job every play.”