Matt Luke has seen some fierce defenses.
In eight years at his alma mater Ole Miss, in endless battles rolling through places like Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa, the Rebels’ head coach has come across his fair share of powerful defensive attacks.
And Auburn’s defense, he says, is one of the best he’s seen since he’s been around.
But he’ll come to Auburn with a plan — drawn up by a mercenary mind heralded as an innovator in college football.
Luke leads an Ole Miss team seeking a landmark victory against No. 11 Auburn on Saturday at 6 p.m. in Jordan-Hare Stadium, bringing offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and one of the SEC’s leading rushing attacks with him, knowing that his offense’s charge against Auburn’s stacked defense could go a long way in deciding how the Rebels’ upset bid plays out.
Ole Miss enters 3-5 on the season and 2-3 in the SEC, but back in Oxford, the Rebels healed and waited on a bye last weekend while Rodriguez, the famed former head coach at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona, devised his plan to challenge Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and the rest of the standouts on the Plains.
Ole Miss is rushing for 232.5 yards per game this season, good for the second best average in the league. The Rebels often use two quarterbacks, in rushing threat John Rhys Plumlee, who complements that running attack, and the pass-first Matt Corral.
But Luke knows he’s in for a tough fight, against what he called “one of the top defenses we’ve faced since I’ve been here.”
Ole Miss has four games left to earn three more wins and achieve its goal of making a bowl game after two years on probation in 2017 and 2018. The Rebels’ chase for their first bowl bid since the 2015 season goes through Auburn with a game against No. 1 LSU still lingering, though — meaning the Rebels are entering Jordan-Hare with postseason desperation surging through the locker room.
Ole Miss has lost four of its last five — but Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has seen all the factors at play and believes Ole Miss is bringing a dangerous group to challenge his Tigers.
“We’re playing a very talented Ole Miss bunch,” Malzahn put it. “They had a week off to prepare for us, to heal up and everything that goes with that.
“It’ll be a good challenge for our team, one that our guys are looking forward to,” he also said. “The big thing for us is playing in front of our home crowd and working real hard to get a victory before our next open date to get some momentum back.”
Auburn’s offense will look to prove it left its struggles on the road last week back in Death Valley. Quarterback Bo Nix will have his chance to throw against an Ole Miss defense that is allowing an SEC-worst 284.4 passing yards per game this season.
On the other side, though, success should come down to the matchup between Rodriguez’s innovative offense and the defense of Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, which is giving up just 105.9 rushing yards per game.
Rodriguez, of course, has made superstars out of quarterbacks like Pat White and Denard Robinson with that rushing attack.
Luke said his team could have a few tricks to offer up coming out of that bye — but that, mostly, Ole Miss plans to play strength vs. strength and try to run the ball against Auburn.
“You’re always going to have a few wrinkles that you throw in — especially coming out of an open date. But you’ve got to be careful,” Luke said. “You’ve got to be who you are. Because I think when you start trying to doing stuff on the road that’s different, and you start getting into a bunch of negative plays, that’s what you can’t do.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing against this group and go play really, really fast.”
After Auburn, Ole Miss will play New Mexico State at home before LSU and then its season finale in the Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.
Auburn will hit its second by of the season next week, before its stretch run against Georgia then Samford and then Alabama.