Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will have his work cut out for him on Saturday. The Tigers travel on the road to Mississippi State for their regular season finale, where a young and injury-riddled defense will square off with Mike Leach and his Air Raid attack.
“When you watch the tape and there’s only nine runs in the whole tape, that tells you right there,” said Coach Steele. Leach’s team almost never runs the ball, which could be a good thing for Auburn since the Tigers are allowing 4.4 yards per rush—their highest average since 2015. They’re also not the first SEC West team to make the switch to a high-flying offense. It’s a trend that first popped up in the Big 12 but has steadily made its way east.
“That’s changed things a little bit.”
Steele’s defense has faced a pass-happy offense like this before. Last season against LSU, his squad introduced a 3-1-7 formation to combat the heroics of Joe Burrow—three linemen, one linebacker, seven defensive backs. Though the Tigers lost that game, Burrow had just one touchdown and also threw one interception—easily his worst outing of the season. It’s possible that the Tigers could bring out a variation of that formation to try and shut down the Bulldogs’ offense.
Sophomore linebacker Owen Pappoe knows what his team is getting into. “It’s kind of going to be like a 7-on-7 game. They like to hit a lot of check downs, and they kind of use that as their run game.” He’s not wrong. Mississippi State hasn’t run for more than 40 yards in a game since the 2nd week of the season.
The key to stopping the Bulldogs’ attack, according to Pappoe, will be to pressure the quarterback without blitzing so that the defense can focus on keeping receivers from breaking free for big gains. Mississippi State’s quarterback, freshman Will Rogers, has completing 76.1% of his passes over the last three games, and though they are 1-2 in that stretch, Leach’s Bulldogs are playing their best football of the year. In their first five games, Mississippi State’s quarterbacks threw 14 interceptions. In the last three, Rogers has thrown zero.
Fortunately, Auburn hasn’t gone into the week taking their first look at the Bulldogs. Though the game was originally scheduled for November 14th, rising coronavirus cases saw the contest postponed to the open date on December 12th, but not before the Tigers had a few days to study film and prepare.
Many expect Auburn to win Saturday’s contest. After a turbulent two weeks, Steele and his defense will be hungry for some redemption that they can take into the postseason. But Pappoe and the Tigers know better than to look ahead.
“In this league, you’ve got to be ready for whatever… I know we’re going to be ready for it.”