Auburn defense steps up in second half

Oct 30, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Zakoby McClain (9) reacts after making a tackle for loss during the game between Auburn and Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
Oct 30, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Zakoby McClain (9) reacts after making a tackle for loss during the game between Auburn and Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

Auburn held Ole Miss to a season-low 20 points on Saturday night in its 31-20 upset win over the No. 10 team in the country.

The Tigers regained a key member of the defense with the return of Owen Pappoe, who played a down for the first time since the Penn State game. In his return, he had five tackles and one loud tackle for loss.

Pappoe’s moment came late in the first quarter, reading a screen pass and being in the backfield by the time the ball was thrown. As soon as it was caught, Pappoe laid a hit on the receiver that knocked him to the ground, ignited the crowd and was a seven-yard loss for Ole Miss.

Having a leader like Pappoe back was “amazing,” according to linebacker McClain.

“Owen’s a really good leader,” McClain said. “He brings the juice out there. He’s just always excited. He just always brings a lot of energy.”

The first quarter saw Auburn hold Ole Miss to just 51 total yards, allowing an average of 3.6 yards per play. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral was injured late in the first but returned five minutes into the second quarter.

The Rebels turned up their level of play, putting 14 points on the board in the second quarter. It was 28-17 at the midway point, with the Tigers’ defense holding their own against the Heisman-candidate quarterback.

Ole Miss made defensive adjustments at halftime and held the Auburn offense to just three points in the second half. Auburn’s defense did the same, a key component when facing a dangerous offense like Ole Miss.

“I feel like we never back down,” said cornerback Roger McCreary. “Even though they were scoring it back to back, I feel like we never let down with the communication. Coach [Derek] Mason came up with a new scheme for us in the second half. I felt like that was great for us, just like we did at Arkansas. I just feel like we played together and communicated and I feel like that was the main piece of the second half.”

It started on the first drive out of the locker rooms, where the Tigers forced a three-and-out to begin the second half. Not only the first drive of the second half, but the second Ole Miss possession was nearly identical.

Three plays and a punt.

The brick-wall defense didn’t stop there, either. Demetris Robertson muffed the Ole Miss punt and the Rebels jumped on it, giving the offense their best starting field position of the night inside the Auburn 30.

The first play went for eight yards, setting up a second-and-2 from the Auburn 21-yard line. Auburn stuffed the run game, with Zakoby McClain and Colby Wooden coming up with key stops to bring up fourth down.

McClain turned in another monster game, leading the team with 14 tackles. It was his 12th career game with double figures in tackles. He also recorded a career-high two sacks.

“I told my team, I refuse to lose, I just want to win,” McClain said. “I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win. I want Auburn to follow me and feed off me.”

On fourth down, the Tigers forced an incompletion, ending the scoring threat.

That was a common occurrence Saturday evening. Ole Miss went for it on fourth down in Auburn territory four times in the second half. All four were pass attempts from Matt Corral.

Three of them fell incomplete. One of them was completed — to Auburn’s Jaylin Simpson.

Simpson came down with the interception in the end zone for his first career pick. It was just the second interception that Corral had thrown all season.

“They came out in a little condensed set, snug,” Simpson said. “Matt Corral rolled out of the pocket and I just plastered with the nearest guy to me, [Corral] just made a poor decision and threw across his body. Very uncharacteristic of [Corral], but I capitalized.”

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