(AP) – Mississippi’s defense picked a good time to have its best performance of the season.
The 19th-ranked Rebels were dominant on that side of the ball during Saturday’s 23-3 win over Texas A&M, shutting down the Aggies’ passing game, holding them to 192 yards and keeping them out of the end zone.
The victory helped Ole Miss re-establish itself as a contender to win the West Division in the Southeastern Conference.
Now the Rebels (6-2, 3-1) are trying to figure out how to make sure that great defense is a constant during the season’s final month starting with what should be an emotionally charged game at Auburn on Saturday.
Safety Trae Elston said the defense wasn’t anywhere close to perfect against the Aggies, but constant effort helped mask some rough moments.
"I think we can be even better," Elston said. "We had a couple of mistakes here and there, we’re still not tackling good, which we need to correct, but everybody was swarming to the ball.
"If a guy missed a tackle, you’ve got another guy coming in to hit him anyway."
The defensive performance was even more encouraging considering the Rebels were without arguably their two best players – defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (concussion) and safety Tony Conner (knee).
Coach Hugh Freeze said Monday that Nkemdiche is still going through post-concussion protocol, but he’s hopeful he’ll be available against Auburn. Conner is still recovering from a torn meniscus in September.
The good news for the Rebels is senior linebacker C.J. Johnson returned against Texas A&M after missing two weeks because of a knee injury. His presence immediately paid off when he recovered a fumble early in the game.
Johnson said the Rebels’ next task is playing with the same energy and intensity on the road. Ole Miss had a stunning 43-37 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa in September, but since then has lost two straight on the road against Florida and Memphis.
"I think those games period we struggled because we didn’t have the energy and intensity we took into Tuscaloosa," Johnson said. "That’s something that we talked about last week. We kind of showed that on Saturday a little bit. The challenge will be to come out and do it against (the Tigers) this week."
Some of the Rebels, including receiver Laquon Treadwell, said the game against Auburn (4-3, 1-3) will be particularly intense. Treadwell was trying to score a go-ahead touchdown against the Tigers on Nov. 1 when he was tackled from behind and broke his leg in a gruesome injury that ended his season.
Treadwell also fumbled on the play, a big reason then-No. 4 Auburn was able to hang on for the 35-31 win. That loss pretty much ended any hope the then-No. 7 Rebels had at winning an SEC title.
Treadwell spent several months rehabbing, but has returned to have a big season. He leads the SEC with 54 catches and 756 receiving yards while scoring five touchdowns.
He said the emotional aspect of this rematch hit him immediately once Ole Miss finished its win against Texas A&M and he realized Auburn was next.
"They’re going to feel my pain," he said. "I’m just going to play my hardest, play with heart like I did last week and my team will do the same and we hope to get the W."
The Tigers don’t appear quite as formidable an opponent as they were last year after falling 54-46 in four overtimes at Arkansas last week.
Auburn rallied from 14 down in the first half and Sean White led them on a game-tying drive late in regulation, capped by a 41-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson. However, they were unable to overcome eight dropped passes, including one that would have gone for a touchdown in the fourth OT to Ricardo Louis.
"We’ve just got to catch the ball and do a better job of it," coach Gus Malzahn said.
"It was a tough one, no doubt about it. Our kids showed a lot of character, a lot of fight … We didn’t get it done in the end when we needed to."
Peyton Barber led Auburn with 120 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 37 carries, while White was 19 of 32 for 254 yards.
The Tigers have started to get going offensively in the last three contests, averaging 37.0 points after scoring 22.0 per game in the first four.
"We’re starting to get into a little bit of a groove," Malzahn said on the university’s Tiger Talk radio show. "That comes with explosive plays, and the last two games we’ve had more explosive plays. When that happens, we get tempo and can get into our pace. The good thing offensively is we have a lot of room to grow."
Auburn has dominated the series with Ole Miss, winning 29 of 39 matchups and 14 of 16 at home. The Tigers have taken five straight meetings at Jordan-Hare Stadium.