The Ole Miss defense played poorly again in a 40-29 loss to Auburn on Saturday night, allowing over 300 yards rushing for the second straight game. A porous front seven let Tigers running back Kamryn Pittway average 7.9 yards per carry while piling up 236 and a touchdown. A lackluster pass rush meant Sean White was pressured on just seven of his 26 dropbacks, leaving him time to complete 68 percent of his passes and work the ball downfield at a rate of 11.2 yards per completion. The Tigers averaged 7.5 yards per play, posted a success rate of 46 percent and converted 50 percent of their third downs plays.
As it has all season, the defensive ineptitude had a lot to do with the linebackers. It didn’t help that usual starter DeMarquis Gates played a limited number of snaps due to a knee injury.
“DeMarquis was hurt all week,” Hugh Freeze said in his postgame press conference. “We weren’t sure if he could play with his knee.”
That forced Tayler Polk, a former walk-on, and redshirt freshman Willie Hibbler into starting roles, where they looked overmatched against the Auburn run game. Auburn’s first score, a 41-yard romp by running back Kamryn Pettway, came after Hibbler bounced off of him in the hole. Pettway, who picked up 154 of his 236 yards after contact, said after the game he didn’t feel like anyone wanted to tackle him.
"I started Tayler Polk and Willie Hibbler tonight,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack told The Ole Miss Spirit after the game. “Polk gets us lined up and will fit his gaps, but he's not as big as you'd like. Willie has been coming along as the future and maybe he wasn't ready for this test. It is big boy football right now and he's a big body, but he may not be ready for the Auburn's of the world.”
In addition, defensive tackle Breeland Speaks played limited snaps after he, in Freeze’s words, “didn’t have the best week of practice.” He’s apparently lost his starting spot to true freshman Benito Jones; Wommack said Speaks needs to gain some weight back and battle for the position.
To be fair, Jones was a highly rated recruit and is very talented, but we all saw what Speaks is capable of last year when he was filling in for Robert Nkemdiche and he is two years older than Jones. He’s the Rebels’ best defensive tackle, and for him to be on the bench for the majority of the game against a power-running team like Auburn was a big blow.
Through eight games, the Rebels are 60th in Football Outsiders’ defensive S&P+, but rank in the mid-80s in both defensive efficiency and defensive explosiveness. The run defense has been especially bad, allowing 5.26 yards per carry (116th in the country) and 237 rushing yards per game (118th).
It’s something Freeze admitted he was worried about coming into the season.
"I actually told someone who's close to me in fall camp that I was concerned about some things defensively,” Freeze said when asked whether he anticipated this type of struggle in 2016. “Usually in camp, the offense doesn't control things. So I guess if I'm answering the questions, maybe I did."
Freeze said last week that he has faith in defensive coordinator Dave Wommack to fix the defense, but it sure didn’t happen this week.