AUBURN — A little more than 300 miles north of Auburn, Elijah Moore was doing to Vanderbilt what Elijah Moore has done all season: Going off.
The Ole Miss wide receiver caught 14 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns Saturday in a 54-21 drubbing in Nashville, Tenn. It was his fifth game this season with double-digit catches and fourth with more than 110 yards. He again leads the SEC in both categories.
It makes what Auburn’s defense did to him a week earlier in Oxford, Miss. — hold the junior to just five catches for 16 yards — all the more impressive.
And it wasn’t a fluke — LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. had been just as impressive this season, totaling at least 67 yards and two touchdowns in each of his first four games this season.
He caught just four passes for 28 yards in a 48-11 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
“Going out there and, you know, kind of shutting guys down, I love to do that,” junior defensive back Christian Tutt said. “It was all in the game plan. So, we went out there and executed.”
The game against Ole Miss, by itself, was the outlier. Auburn’s defense had been victimized by a few teams’ leading receivers over the previous three weeks.
Georgia’s Kearis Jackson caught nine passes for 147 yards in a Week 2 win at Sanford Stadium. That one game represents 37.5 percent and 42.2 percent of his production this entire season, respectively. Arkansas’ De’Vion Warren got loose to catch five passes for 95 yards and a pair of scores in Week 3. South Carolina’s Shi Smith caught eight passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Quarterbacks Stetson Bennett, Feleipe Franks and Collin Hill completed 65.8 percent of their passes, averaged 8.6 yards an attempt and threw six touchdowns to one interception in those games.
But maybe the win over LSU turns Auburn shutting down some of the best receivers in the SEC— and, as a result, some of the conference's most lethal passing attacks — into a trend. Because the Tigers did something against both the Rebels and Bayou Bengals that it did not do against either the Bulldogs, Razorbacks or Gamecocks, and that’s play at least close to full strength.
Safety Smoke Monday was ejected for targeting within the first three minutes of the loss to Georgia. Jaylin Simpson, a Week 1 starter at cornerback, didn’t play against Georgia or Arkansas and was limited against South Carolina. Safety Jordyn Peters was limited to only one defensive snap against the Razorbacks. Cornerback Marco Domio didn’t make his Auburn debut until the Ole Miss game.
Saturday marked just the second game of the season that all of those players saw the field.
The only injury that group is dealing with now is to safety Jamien Sherwood, who aggravated an ankle injury against LSU and was seen using crutches on the sideline during the second half. Fortunately, he has an extra week to heal up before a Nov. 14 trip to Mississippi State — coach Gus Malzahn said Sunday that the team is hopeful he'll be able to return for that game.
“I feel like the secondary is finally coming together,” cornerback Roger McCreary said.
That’s important because it’s not an individual effort.
McCreary has received the same No. 1 cornerback billing as Noah Igbinoghene, Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis before him, and is certainly deserving of that status with two interceptions, three pass breakups and seemingly not many targets through six games.
But it’s not as if defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is simply leaving him on an island with whoever the opponent’s top receiver is.
In fact, Marshall operated mostly out of the slot Saturday, which meant he saw a lot of Tutt, Monday and freshman Ladarius Tennison and in front of him in man and zone. The LSU star caught less than half of his nine targets, and even when he did, those players didn’t let him get far — those plays gained 4, 13, 7 and 4 yards, respectively.
Cornerback Nehemiah Pritchett accounted for more yards than that on his 48-yard interception return early in the second quarter, which set up Auburn’s first touchdown.
LSU quarterback T.J. Finley targeted Marshall on the play, but the second-and-nine pass sailed on him. Pritchett was covering Jaray Jenkins running deep but kept an eye on Marshall, and once the pass was airborne, put himself perfectly in position to make the play.
"We was in a zone right there, a Cover 2,” Pritchett said. “I was trying to re-route No. 10 (Jenkins), and then once I saw No. 6 (Marshall) come out, I knew that was my play."
Auburn hopes to make more of them. It plays the most pass-happy offense in the SEC following the bye week. It has a date with the conference’s second-leading receiver, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith (56 catches, 759 yards, eight touchdowns) on the schedule two weeks after that.
The Tigers appear up to the task, though — after that relatively slow start to the season, they held Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and LSU's duo to just 59 percent completion, 6.2 yards an attempt and a two-to-four touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past two weeks.
Auburn ranks fourth in the SEC in pass defense. And it may be on its way up.
"We just tried to prove that we have one of the best secondaries in the SEC,” Pritchett said. “We’re just trying to improve each week.”