AUBURN — Much like Auburn, Ole Miss is also utilizing two quarterbacks at the moment. Sophomore Bo Wallace has been the starter and will be again this morning when the Rebels (3-3, 0-2 SEC) host the Tigers and backup Barry Brunetti plays as well.
Wallace was 20 for 34 for a season-high 305 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions and rushed for 21 yards and a touchdown as Ole Miss lost 30-27 to Texas A&M last week, extending the Rebels' SEC losing-streak to 16 games.
"The mistakes that he does make are magnified because of the state of our program," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said of Wallace.
"We're at a place in our program right now where every single snap and play is critical. ... Except for one time in the first half, he was making exactly the right decisions."
Freeze was referring to a costly interception by Wallace which resulted in a game-tying return touchdown for the Aggies. Wallace also had an interception late in the game which Freeze was far more upset about.
"Those are the decisions we can't make. It is a no brainer," Freeze said. "Prior to the snap he should have seen where it should have gone. He's nowhere in his progression to be making the decision to go to that receiver and that call. He'll be the first one to tell you that. We'll be the first one to tell you we have to coach him better."
So Freeze has the 6-foot-4, 204-pound Wallace, who is 90 for 146 for 1,145 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions and has 186 rushing yards and three touchdowns, on a short leash today against the Tigers (1-4, 0-3).
"You'll see a combination of both," Freeze said. "If mistakes like that are occurring early, there will be a change."
Wallace will be playing with a heavy heart this week after his sister Baylee broke her neck in a car accident Monday night. She underwent successful surgery and Freeze, who tweeted details about the accident, was reportedly told she had movement in "all extremities" and expected to make a full recovery.
The possibility of facing two quarterbacks is not a new challenge for the Tigers, who had the same challenge against Louisiana-Monroe. Brunetti is 19 for 27 for 117 yards with a touchdown and has 32 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown in limited playing time.
"I think they're pretty consistent offensively in what they do," Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "Having said that, there's a lot of offense. I think each quarterback represents a different kind of threat within the structure of what they do."
The Auburn defense made strides against LSU and played well for three quarters against Arkansas but came up short both games.
The Rebels have had just as hard a time protecting their quarterbacks as Auburn, also allowing 17 sacks this season. Establishing the pass rush is critical as the Tigers front four could be in for a big day, though defensive end Dee Ford is dealing with an injury and his playing status is uncertain.
VanGorder said creating interceptions — Auburn is last in the SEC and tied for 115th nationally with just one INT — is a point of emphasis and it all starts up front.
"I think a lot of it has to do with our pass rush," he said. "We've been inconsistent to put pressure on the quarterbacks to force errant throws. ... It's a concern. We've got to take the ball away."
Auburn's secondary is also dealing with an injury as cornerback Chris Davis' status for today's game is uncertain. The potential loss of Davis makes matching up with Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncreif more important.
Moncrief leads the Rebels with 27 receptions for 453 yards and five touchdowns, more yards than the next three leading Ole Miss receivers combined.
If the Tigers can be opportunistic and pressure Wallace or Brunetti while also not losing the 6-3 Moncrief downfield, it will make for a signature performance by a defense and a team desperately in need of a win.
"We're trying to become a championship defense, and we have a lot of work to do to get there," VanGorder said. "Game consistency is still the most important thing and as we get better, I think you'll see us get more opportunistic."