War Eagle Extra

Auburn football: Tigers are wary of Mississippi Rebels defense, an under-publicized unit that impresses AU

Under-publicized unit impresses AU



AUBURN, Ala. — Catch a Mississippi highlight sometime, and it’s sure to feature plenty of quarterback Jevan Snead and running back Dexter McCluster, two of the better offensive players in the conference.

But don’t sleep on the Rebels’ defense, Auburn’s coaches warn. It might be the best one the Tigers have played this season.

“It’s comparable to LSU, but I think they may be a little more athletic,” said running backs coach Curtis Luper, lofty praise considering it comes a week after LSU held Auburn to season lows in points (10) and yards (193).

As if the Tigers (5-3, 2-3 SEC) don’t have enough to worry about today, trying to contain Snead and McCluster — Snead had 332 passing yards and two touchdowns last week against Arkansas; McCluster broke out for 260 combined yards and a score — the Tigers’ suddenly clueless offense will have to find ways to move the ball against one of the stingiest defenses in the country.

No. 24 Mississippi (5-2, 2-2) quietly has put up stats comparable to SEC powerhouse defenses like Florida, Alabama and LSU.

The Rebels are ninth nationally in scoring defense (13.6 ppg) and 20th in yards allowed (300.0 ypg). A secondary that was expected to struggle has instead been a strength, giving up 166.9 yards per game, a mark that ranks 14th in the country.

“I look at the defense we’re about to face, and they’re as fast as the one we just faced,” Auburn wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “I was amazed. I was thinking surely that LSU is going to be the best that we’ve seen, and they’re pretty good. But these guys on tape — and I’m not just saying it because we’re playing them — they really are.”

That’s not what the Tigers wanted to hear. Auburn has watched its point total and yardage decrease in each of the past five weeks.

Coaches gave quarterback Chris Todd a vote of confidence this week, but the senior’s struggles during a three-game losing streak have prompted Auburn’s fans to clamor for backup Neil Caudle.

Nevertheless, coaches aren’t laying all the blame on Todd.

“He’s the same quarterback that played extremely well early on,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “I know when the offense struggles, the focus is on the quarterback, but there’s a lot of variables. I feel like he’s a good quarterback and he gives us the best chance to win.”

“We’ve got to get back over the hump,” tight end Tommy Trott said. “We had such a promising start, and these last three games have been nothing short of disappointing. I feel like we can. We’re a talented bunch.”

Auburn has heard plenty to the contrary after its 5-0 start has been all but forgotten during a three-game losing streak. Fans fear it is a repeat of last year’s second-half collapse, when the Tigers dropped six of their final seven games.

“It’s a funny place here at Auburn,” Trott said. “We have some of the best fans in the country. We do. ... They’re passionate about their football here, and they want to be the best of the best.

“When you’re doing great, they love you, and when you’re not doing so good, they’re quick to give their opinions.”

Graduate assistant Travis Williams, a linebacker for Auburn on the disappointing 2003 team and the undefeated 2004 squad, gave the players some advice.

“Not to listen to y’all guys,” he said to reporters. “When we were 5-0, you’d have thought we were going to go win a national championship. Everybody was happy; everybody was jumping on the bandwagon. Everybody was this: Auburn has the best offense in the world, best defense in the world, best coaches in the world, best players in the world.

“You can’t really feed into that. We lost three in a row. Now, it’s like, we’ve got the worst coaches in the world, worst players in the world, worst offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams. So it’s just human nature as fans to kind of switch sides. The true Auburn fans kind of know what’s going on, how hard it is in this league. We’ll get it back.”