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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn secondary shuts down air raid second time around

Auburn corners Jaylin Simpson (36) and Nehemiah Pritchett (18) celebrate a pass break up over a Western Kentucky receiver in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 19, 2022.
Auburn corners Jaylin Simpson (36) and Nehemiah Pritchett (18) celebrate a pass break up over a Western Kentucky receiver in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 19, 2022.

Two weeks ago, Auburn’s defense was torched by Mississippi State’s air raid offense. Bulldog quarterback Will Rogers threw for 357 yards on his way to becoming the all-time leading passer in Mississippi State history and racked up three touchdowns.

Mississippi State recorded 62 pass attempts as a team, yet the Auburn defense only intercepted one pass as Rogers went 42-for-59.

Auburn wasn't going to let that happen against Western Kentucky, who also runs an air raid offense. The Hilltoppers entered the game inside the top 15 nationally in yards per game and points per game. The Hilltoppers even ranked higher than Mississippi State in passing yards per game — sitting at No. 3 in the country.

However, Auburn’s defensive performance against WKU was nothing similar to the struggle it had against Mississippi State.

Whenever a defense faces an offense as aggressive as WKU is through the air, it’s bound to give up some yards. That happened as the Hilltoppers’ four players who threw a pass combined for 300 yards.

But unlike the Mississippi State game where Rogers completed an efficient 71% of his passes, WKU’s completion percentage was not near as high. WKU starting quarterback Austin Reed completed just 46% of his passes. Reed entered the game with a 68.1% completion percentage.

The drastic drop in completion percentage can be attributed to the Auburn secondary’s consistent night breaking up passes. Auburn recorded five pass breakups against Mississippi State, but against WKU that number doubled to 10.

While Auburn’s secondary performed better against Western Kentucky, there were no changes in the game plan between the two games.

“We didn’t really change much. We stayed with our cause,” said defensive back Jaylin Simpson. “We just game plan like any other team… but the calls, no, we stuck to it.”

Simpson led the team with three of those pass breakups, while Nehemiah Pritchett broke up two of his own, and even defensive linemen Colby Wooden and Marcus Bragg were credited with one each.

“We know we have to play really tight coverage,” Simpson said. “We have no middle of the field help, so we were talking about just being sticky all week. I think we just did a good job being real sticky on those guys all night.”

Auburn also intercepted two passes against Western Kentucky. Both of Auburn’s takeaways Saturday night were extremely timely, as D.J. James' topped off a 24-point win.

Western Kentucky had a chance to take the lead early in the second half, but Reed sailed a pass and it fell directly into Simpson’s arms. Simpson danced around the field before falling to the ground and officially grabbing his second interception in three weeks.

Simpson originally began the year starting at cornerback, but his spot was taken by Oregon transfer D.J. James. After settling into a role as a rotational cornerback for a few weeks, Simpson was inserted back into the starting lineup when safety Donovan Kaufman suffered an injury. This meant Simpson started at safety this week — a position he has not played at Auburn, but the junior thrived in his new role.

“It feels great man. Things happen, but I got a mindset of ‘stay down until you come up,’” Simpson said. “I just kept my head down and just kept working.”

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The second interception of the game ironically came from James, which was his first of the season and the first of his Auburn career. James dropped an interception earlier but made up for it when he housed his interception later and iced the game.

Simpson was ecstatic for his teammates' first pick at Auburn.

“We’ve been waiting on it, and plus he dropped one,” Simpson said. “He dropped an easy one… but it was a good thing to see. I love seeing my teammates succeed like that. It was great.”

The pair  of turnovers gave Auburn a 2-0 win in the turnover battle, the second time Auburn has won the turnover battle since the takeover of interim head coach Carnell Williams. In his second straight win at head coach, he has loved what he's seen from his defense.

“I love watching them guys play defense. I tell them all the time, and my heart is on the defensive side,” Williams said. “I love to watch them play defense… Now we can play Auburn ball as a team. Because as much as this is a team sport, there’s still a lot of one-on-one battles you have to execute, and you gotta whoop the guy in front of you.”

Jacob Waters | Sports Reporter

Jacob is a sophomore from Leeds, Alabama. This is his second year with The Auburn Plainsman. 

Twitter: @JacobWaters_

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