After holding Ole Miss in check for most of Saturday night’s contest, Auburn needed one more stop to add its seventh win of 2019. Fortunately for Auburn and their fans, the Tigers’ defense proved itself to be up to the challenge.
The Tigers followed up a strong three quarters of play on defense by standing tall when the Rebels threatened a late comeback. The game was sealed by star linebacker Christian Tutt, who intercepted Ole Miss’ last-second, desperation throw to seal a 20-14 victory.
“Defensively, we were concerned about their big-play chunks. They really had a lot of explosive run plays against some really good teams. They only had two plays of 20-plus yards and were 3-of-15 on third down,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “The defense, when they had to, they stopped them. When the game was on the line, I was real proud of the offense flipping the field and the defense ending the game right there.”
Auburn faced the challenge of playing without starting defensive end Marlon Davidson and safety Jeremiah Dinson, but the defense showed quickly that their absences weren’t going to derail it from having a strong game.
Ole Miss switched quarterbacks John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral in and out to no avail, as the Rebels only mustered 129 yards in the first half of play. The Rebels’ inability to get things going early was in large part due to Auburn’s strong third-down defense, which left Ole Miss with a measly 2-of-9 showing on the money down in the game’s first two quarters.
“We were just doing what (defensive coordinator Kevin) Steele asked us to do,” safety Daniel Thomas said. “We were executing the calls and just doing our job. We were filling the gaps and staying in coverage.”
The Rebels’ only points in the first half came on Plumlee’s four-yard rushing touchdown with under a minute to go, but it was all set up by a play the defense was not responsible for.
Ole Miss had all of 10 punt return yards through eight games but cashed in just before halftime when Elijah Moore caught a punt on the right side of the field, weaved up the middle past several Tigers and broke off a 55-yard return to the Auburn 34-yard line.
From there, the Rebels ran three times – the final being Plumlee’s scamper to the end zone – to cut Auburn’s lead down to 10-7 before the half.
“That punt return really changed a lot of momentum,” Malzahn said. “We had the momentum. They went in with the momentum at halftime because of that punt return. We have to a better job of that. That was really unusual because we've been doing a super job.”
Even with that setback due in part to the special teams, the Tigers’ defenders barely flinched.
Auburn’s defense continued to frustrate the Ole Miss offense well into the second half as the Tigers’ offense leaned on its running game and tried to put the game away. The Rebels, however, wouldn’t go down without a fight, forcing the worn-out Tigers’ defense to get another crucial stop late.
Ole Miss managed its first long scoring drive of the night in the final minutes, piecing together a 15-play, 91-yard scoring drive that cut Auburn’s lead to 20-14 with 5:45 to go. The Rebels got one more crack at scoring with 1:14 left, but the Tigers were vocal amongst themselves about finishing strong.
“It was, 'Man, don't let them score. Don't let them score. It's in our hands. Don't let them score,'” linebacker K.J. Britt said.
“You wouldn't expect to have the game that close, but sometimes you have a dogfight,” Thomas said. “You've just got to finish.”
The Tigers firmly shut the door on the Rebels’ late heroics on the game’s final play. Plumlee, flushed from the pocket on fourth down with practically no time remaining, flung a pass into the air right to Tutt. Tutt raced downfield as the clock ran out before being brought down at the Ole Miss 13-yard line, allowing the Tigers’ players and fans to finally exhale in the process.
Even with Davidson and Dinson sidelined, the Tigers consistently made plays on defense and did enough late to thwart an Ole Miss comeback. While the evening was far from perfect, it was an outing that showed the unit is willing and able to play lights out well into November.
“Hopefully, there's more to come,” Britt said. “I'm hoping for another great defensive game versus Georgia.”