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Three and Out: Keys to Ole Miss-Auburn

Three areas to watch as No. 4 Ole Miss hosts No. 3 Auburn in a Southeastern Conference Western Division showdown featuring half of the top four teams in the initial College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings.

Bounce-Back Bo

Ole Miss senior quarterback Bo Wallace has had his two statistically-worst games the last two weeks, completing 13-of-28 passes for 199 yards against Tennessee and 13-of-33 passes for 176 yards against LSU. 

Wallace had attempted 140 passes and carried the ball 61 times before turning the ball over on a game-ending interception against LSU. The Rebels were also held to season lows in points (7) and total yards (313) in the 10-7 loss to the Tigers last week.

"A lot of times when we're throwing right now it's third down," Wallace said. "We're staying in third and long so much. People get in their defenses and it's hard in this league to convert third downs as well as people play third-down defense. We have to get back to throwing the ball on first and second down and making plays like we did earlier in the season."

"I would say this for our entire team, not just Bo, our demeanor was a bit different in that environment," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "We let things get to us that have not bothered us earlier in the season. It seemed to rattle us a little bit. He missed some open guys. He also made some really good throws. It just seemed that our demeanor was a little bit different as a team. I haven't noticed any mechanical things that are any different."

Freeze has been pleased with Wallace's demeanor in practice, describing it as typical for him.

"He bounces back," he said. "He's resilient and he's hungry to get back out and play again."

Finding Traction on the Ground

The strength of the Auburn defense has been against the run, while the weakness of the Ole Miss offense has been its rushing attack.

Auburn has allowed just 3.37 yards per carry, tied for fifth-best in the SEC, and has allowed an opponent to average 4.0 yards or more per carry just twice this season, giving up 153 yards on 29 carries against Arkansas and 223 yards on 44 carries against Mississippi State.

Ole Miss ranks fourth in the SEC in passing offense (268.8 ypg) but just 12th in the SEC in rushing offense (149.5 ypg). The Rebels also rank 12th in the SEC in yards per carry (3.87), and have been held under 4.0 yards per carry four times this season.

Ole Miss eclipsed 4.0 yards per carry against LSU, averaging 4.03 yards per carry, but the offense struggled to find consistency, particularly in the second half. The Rebels ran the ball on first down nine times in the second half, and none of those rushes went for more than two yards.

The key in the run game, as it has been all season, more than any statistic, is keeping the offense on schedule and out of obvious passion situations.

"It's difficult to run in this league," Freeze said. "We have some challenges that we have to continue to work on and try to find what the best way is to attack defenses to  stay somewhat balanced so we're not having to throw it every down and they know we're going to throw it. That's a bad feeling and a difficult way to go about being successful."

Gleeson, Bray Headline Special Teams Battle

Field position can be gained and games can be won by special teams, and Saturday's showdown features two of the nation's best in the Ole Miss punt unit and the Auburn punt return unit.

Ole Miss redshirt-freshman punter Will Gleeson was named the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after his game against LSU, having landed four of his six punts inside the 10-yard line. 

For the season, he has landed 20 of his 38 punts inside the 20, as he has helped the Rebels rank second in the SEC and fourth nationally in net punting with a 42.8 average. 

Auburn senior wide receiver Quan Bray earned SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors earlier this season, returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown against Louisiana Tech, one of three total touchdowns for him in the game.

Bray leads the nation in punt return average (25.2 ypg) and has two punt return touchdowns this season, as he has helped the Tigers lead the nation in punt returning with a 23.45 average.

 

There are a lot of connections and similarities, as No. 24 Ole Miss prepares for its third straight road game of the season on the Plains against Auburn.


Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn served as Arkansas State's head coach in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and both teams run similar up-tempo offenses.


"We certainly can look just alike offensively, if we wanted to," Freeze said of the two offenses. "We'll be able to simulate their looks very efficiently for our defense. But having said that, both of us can change a lot during the course of a week, and he has two weeks to do whatever he is going to do. He will dress things up and add some wrinkles that we haven't seen.


"We are very, very similar in the things we do offensively, so it can help prepare us. You never know exactly what to prepare for. We'll show them that our defense wants to see, but there will be something that we don't cover that we will see Saturday night."


Freeze and Malzahn met when they were high school coaches and they traveled in the same circles of clinics and speeches. Their relationship grew when they were both assistants in the SEC in 2006. At that time, Freeze was the recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach at Ole Miss, and Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.


"It is somewhat eerily similar the paths we have shared many times," Freeze said. "We wish we were not in the same half of this conference, which would be nice. We would see each other just every so often and be able to help each other, but that's not reality, so we have to go and play.


"During the offseason, we would communicate quite a bit. Before this week, we would text maybe once a week, maybe a phone call, depending on who he's playing, and who I'm playing, we may talk some, without compromising each other's plan of any type. That's not real frequent. It's more of a texting, 'Good luck,' or "How are you doing?' deal."


Aplin Reunites With Two Former College Coaches


Another connection between Freeze and Malzahn is former Arkansas State quarterback and current Ole Miss administrative intern Ryan Aplin, who joined Freeze's staff after a very successful college career under Freeze and then Malzahn.


A two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, Aplin led the Red Wolves to back-to-back conference championships in 2011 and 2012 and completed his four year-career with more than 25 combined single-game, season and career school record and as the conference's all-time leader in completions, passing yards and total offense.


"I like to hire good people who played for me," Freeze said of hiring Aplin. "I like to take care of those guys. When Ryan's NFL deal fell through this year, it was a no-brainer. If I had a quality control spot open, I would certainly want him here, just like I hired Ben Aigamaua who played for me also, and I will continue to try to hire good people that know what we do and the core values of our program."


As an intern, Aplin works with co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Dan Werner charting data, analyzing film and performing other administrative duties. 

"I had a conversation with Ryan early this week," Freeze said. "I know he's very close to both out us, and I don't want him to feel uncomfortable at all in anything that's going on. I'm sure Gus has changed everything from when Ryan was there. But at the same time, we had changed some things, too. 


"People, though, who work or play for you for a while, there's only so much you can change. They still can probably tell if it's run or pass. Now, if you can do that in time to make calls, I don't know. We won't put Ryan in that position. We're going to move him down from the press box to the field in this game. He'll be involved in helping us this week for sure, but we want him to feel good about the way that everything goes about."



'They Remind Me A Lot Of Us Last Year'


Inheriting a team that went 3-9 last season and winless in the SEC, Malzahn has Auburn off to a 3-1 start this year, with home wins over Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State. The Tigers' only loss was in their last game at then-No. 6 LSU, as they enter this week coming off a bye.


"They remind me a lot of us last year," Freeze said. "They are a vey, very hungry team that plays with great emotion, energy and passion. That's doesn't surprise me at all with Gus' leadership. They're off to a great start and have been very, very good at home, and we have to go there for another road trip in a hostile environment on a Saturday night. That's a big game for both schools sitting at 3-1. He will have them ready.


"He's got them playing extremely hard, and you face an offense that is very balanced in rushing and passing. They give you a lot of looks, motions and smoke and mirrors, and they are very efficient at what they do. Defensively, Ellis is one of the best in the business and is very, very multiple. You have to prepare for most anything."


Offensively, the Auburn rushing attack ranks third in the SEC with 232.2 yards per game, led by junior running back Tre Mason with 84.5 yards per game and four touchdowns. First-year quarterback Nick Marshall is 60-of-103 for 809 yards, with four touchdowns and four interceptions, and ranks sixth in the SEC in total offense with 239.3 yards per game.


R. Nkemdiche At Defensive Tackle


Having lined up primarily at defensive end in the first three games of the season, freshman Robert Nkemdiche moved inside for most of the game against Alabama. Freeze was overall pleased with the move, but it may not be permanent.


"We'll continue to look at where it's best to put him from week to week," Freeze said. "I wouldn't say it permanent. We'll look at what we're facing.


"He did fine. He made a few mistakes, but so did everyone. He graded out around 82 percent. He only had a few missed assignments. He made several tackles. He is very strong and tough to move around. He played real solid for a game of that magnitude against that offensive line in that arena."


Bouncing Back


Coming off the 25-0 loss at No. 1 Alabama, it was about learning from the loss, then putting it in the trash and preparing this week for Saturday against Auburn.


"One of the things about our program that I hope our kids see is that our coaches don't blink," Freeze said. "You have to play the next play. Yesterday, all of us didn't like losing. But again, it had been a while since we had lost compared to a few years back.


"We came into the team meeting. Sunday is about the truth. We told the truth about the offense, the defense and the special teams, and we put it in the trash and then went out and practiced with a lot of energy. I was real pleased with everyone's spirit."


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