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Ole Miss needs to be better against the run to beat Auburn

Auburn's efficient ground attack poses a serious challenge for a Rebel defense that was trampled by Leonard Fournette last week.

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Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss' defense as a whole has struggled during the consecutive losses that dropped it out of SEC West contention, but the run defense in particular has been glaringly deficient. LSU averaged 9.3 yards per carry while piling up 316 yards in Baton Rouge. A week before, an Arkansas ground game that had been bad all season averaged a healthy 4.3 while running for 209. Ole Miss ranked top-20 against the run last season but has dropped to 58th in rushing S&P+ in 2016.

The challenges for this group continue on Saturday against an Auburn offense that leads the SEC in rushing yards per game and ranks 18th in the country in rushing efficiency. The Tigers ran the ball down Arkansas' throat to the point of boredom last week, amassing 543 yards (9.5 yards per carry).

Before a single down is played, it’s already near certain that the Ole Miss defense could be on the field for much of the game. A good amount of progression has to occur for the Rebs to have a chance.

It all starts up front.

The main reason Ole Miss hovers around the national average in terms of stopping the run and not much worse has been the play of the defensive line. If any trace of the chaos-generating landshark defenses of old does exist, the rushmen are to thank, as the only position group with a havoc rate above the national average. They also do their part to put the opposing offense off schedule, ranking 36th in line yards per carry on standard downs.

Still, this group hasn't been the destructive force most anticipated coming into the season. Ole Miss ranks a modest 54th in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. Marquis Haynes is the only Rebel lineman with more than 2.5 tackles for loss (for reference, Texas A&M has five such linemen). Breeland Speaks and D.J. Jones, who were All-SEC candidates coming into the season, have just 2.5 tackles for loss between them.

Meanwhile, the Auburn O-line is looking like the punishing group of a few years ago. They've been dominant since tweaking the lineup three weeks ago (Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson is now starting at center) and now rank 12th in the country in line yards per carry.

The linebackers need to prevent explosive runs.

When ball carriers do get by the Rebel D-line, they tend to keep running for a while. Last week, an outstanding but somewhat hobbled Leonard Fournette picked up an incredible 194 yards before contact thanks largely to the linebackers' inability to plug running lanes. Fournette averaged 30.9 yards per carry on runs that made it to the second level.

"Basically, we just had some missed fits," said Haynes, who was the lone defensive bright spot in Baton Rouge. "That’s all. We had some busted coverages and missed fits."

Here's what he's talking about.

Fournette is an exceptional back, of course, but this problem goes beyond the game in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss has allowed teams to gain five or more yards on 42.6 percent of their runs, 105th worst in the country. The Rebels defense ranks 108th in rushes of 20-plus yards allowed (15) and 101st in rushing isoPPP (a measure of explosiveness).

The first defender to touch a runner shouldn’t be a defensive back in the open field, but that’s become a common occurrence this year. A linebacker core lacking in depth and experience has been out of position far too often, and failures by the line to shut down a run early haven’t been met with much forgiveness from the second level.

Slowing down Auburn's ground game won't be easy.

Auburn currently ranks 20th in opportunity rate at 44.3 percent, and that figure goes up to 48.4 percent when you remove less than amazing outings against the stout fronts of Clemson and LSU.

Against the same Razorback defense that muted the Ole Miss running backs in the second half, Auburn showed no weaknesses on the ground, even deep into the depth chart.

Player Runs Yards Yards per Carry Line YPC Opportunity Rate Stuff Rate Hlt Yards per Opp
Eli Stove 3 94 31.33 6.33 100% 0% 25.00
Kamryn Pettway 27 192 7.11 4.41 52% 7% 5.21
Sean White 4 61 15.25 4.75 50% 0% 21.00
Stanton Truitt 8 78 9.75 4.19 50% 0% 11.13
John Franklin III 7 39 5.57 4.29 57% 0% 2.25
Kam Martin 7 80 11.43 4.50 57% 0% 12.13
National Average 5.19 2.93 39% 20% 5.16

The line did its job of getting the runner to the second level at an absurd rate, and the only times they allowed a back to get stuffed at the line of scrimmage were on two of Kamryn Pettway's 27 runs. Sean White, who was once described by Brent Venables as sneaky fast (lol), helped reestablish the read option as a legitimate threat in Gus Malzahn’s offense. These highlight yards numbers from most of the supplementary runners show that not all the credit for the Tigers’ retooled run game should go to the line.

Ole Miss doesn't have to morph into the ‘85 Bears to slow down Auburn's ground game. It takes just three consecutive deterrent plays in most situations to get off the field. If they can cut down on the big plays allowed, the defensive line's better-than-average ability to stuff runs on early downs could prove crucial for an upset Saturday.