Big Plays Are A Primary Job For Secondary

<b>Carlos Rogers</b>

The Auburn football team is picking off passes at an impressive rate during the 2002 season.

Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn secondary headed into Oxford, Miss., with lots of respect for Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning. The Tigers left town Saturday night with respect for the Ole Miss star undiminished, but they took away the junior's chances of keeping his team in the race for the SEC West title.

The Auburn secondary also left the Ole Miss campus with three more interceptions to increase the team's total to 18 on the season. That puts the Tigers into a tie for the national lead along with Arizona State and San Jose State.

Auburn's ball-hogging group, led by senior Travaris Robinson, helped the Tigers take a 31-24 victory at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium that improved Auburn's record to 4-2 in the SEC. That keeps the Tigers very much in the race for the SEC West title. Ole Miss fell to 2-3 and will need to win the rest of its league games and get lots of help to get back in competition for the divisional crown.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said after reviewing video of the victory that nobody on the Auburn defense played better than Robinson, who came up with one of Auburn's three interceptions. The big play by T-Rob came with 1:32 left. Robinson intercepted Manning in the end zone to end a serious late rally by the Rebs, who were threatening to send the game into overtime. For that play and others throughout the day, Robinson was named the coaching staff's defensive player of the game.

Robinson gave Auburn's defensive performance mixed reviews, but noted that the Tigers came up with big plays when they needed to make something happen. He said the exciting finish should give Auburn momentum going into the final three games of the season starting with Saturday's homecoming game vs. Louisiana-Monroe, an appetizer for the rivalry games coming up after that vs. Georgia and Alabama.

The Auburn secondary has seven interceptions in its last two games. Commenting on the 18th pick of the season that ended the Rebels' final hope, Robinson says, "You just have got to go out there and make a play when you get your chance. I know Manning is a great quarterback, but he can't be perfect all of the time so we were just waiting on our opportunities."

A week earlier, during the 31-7 drubbing of SEC West leader LSU, the Tigers kept quarterback Marcus Randall off balance all day by intercepting four passes and holding LSU to only 79 yards through the air. Senior cornerback Roderick Hood says that the secondary was not doing anything special to try and confuse the freshman quarterback. "To be honest, it wasn't anything that we did differently, we just played with high intensity and we got after them," Hood says. "We didn't sit back and we got off to a fast start."

Hood and the Tigers spent a lot of game week practice time putting in some new looks to cause Manning some problems on Saturday in Oxford. For most of the first half, the moves worked because the Rebels trailed 14-3 at the break and had just 90 total yards of offense. Manning was able to get cranked up in the second half as he threw three touchdown passes against an Auburn secondary that had allowed just four in the previous eight games.

Hood says the Tigers are trying to play with more consistency in the secondary and says that is a must if Auburn is going to return to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta this December. Robinson agrees and adds, "Fortunately, we got the victory against Ole Miss and that is what matters."

Before the game, Robinson said that to win on the road in the SEC against a talented quarterback, the Tigers needed to take advantage of any opportunities presented the Tigers by the Rebels. Robinson noted, "We know that Manning is going to get his one way or another, but when we have a chance to make a play we have got to maximize the opportunity and make a play on the ball and come down with some interceptions on him. We know he is not going to make a lot of mistakes, but when he does we have got to capitalize on them."

Manning put the ball in the air 46 times. Three times the ball landed the arms of Auburn defensive backs and all three times the Tigers capitalized on the opportunities that set up Auburn touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter after interceptions by Carlos Rogers and Horace Willis. Auburn didn't score after Robinson's interception in the end zone, but the play enabled the Auburn offense to run out the clock to preserve the seven-point victory.

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