Auburn dug in its cleats.
In an ugly game, the Tigers turned to ugly football, going to the running game early in the third quarter for a separation score, then icing the game on a defensive stand to survive 20-14 against Ole Miss on Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn led just 10-7 at halftime against seemingly outmatched Ole Miss when the Tigers opened the third quarter running the ball 10 times on a 13-play touchdown drive to go up 17-7.
Then in the fourth, after Ole Miss cut Auburn’s late lead to 20-14 and watched Auburn miss a third field goal on the night, Auburn’s defense bowed its back and bailed out the Tigers.
“Well, we won,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said, moments after Christian Tutt pulled down the game-sealing interception on the final play of the game and Auburn made its harrowing escape.
“I think that’s how you assess it,” he said, weighing the good and the bad. “We won the game.
“I’m proud of the fact we won the game, but we’ve got to clean some things up.”
Auburn moved to 7-2 on the season and 4-2 in the SEC. Struggling Ole Miss fell to 3-6 and 2-4, just shy of a major upset over 11th-ranked Auburn.
Auburn rolled up 507 yards of offense but only scored 20 points, in a game bizarre from the start.
The first half saw Auburn outgain Ole Miss with 315 total yards to 129, but hold only a slim field-goal lead at the break. Auburn saw two first-half drives in Ole Miss territory end in missed field goals, and another end on a lost fumble.
Ole Miss got the ball with 1:14 left down just six points, before the defense made its game-winning stop.
Freshman linebacker Owen Pappoe pressured Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee on fourth down at the Auburn 30, and Tutt came down with his last-gasp throw up for grabs.
“Protect the house,” Pappoe said of his defense’s mindset going into that drive. “Don’t let them in the end zone.”
With the lead late, that Auburn defense didn’t let its team down.
Ole Miss entered the game off a bye week, rested and prepared to take its puncher’s chance at Auburn, entering with four games left to win three and make it to a bowl game. After probation years in Oxford, that was the Rebels’ big goal this season.
“I seen a desperate team,” Auburn middle linebacker K.J. Britt said after Auburn survived. “Those teams are desperate. Those are the teams that are dangerous.
“So we knew that they were going to do everything in their power to win. We just had to stop them.”
That bizarre first half saw freshman D.J. Williams score Auburn’s first touchdown by being lifted into the end zone by left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, and saw Derrick Brown lay a big hit when falling into fortune, substituting into a play late and running directly into an Ole Miss running back in the open field to make the stop.
Auburn’s defense played admirably with senior starters and leaders Marlon Davidson and Jeremiah Dinson out of the game. The offense rolled up plenty of first-half yards — but saw too many of its drives into Ole Miss territory come up empty.
Then in the third, Auburn came out of the locker room and Williams helped give Auburn some breathing room. Bent on establishing the run, Auburn ran Williams seven times on the first drive of the third quarter, which ended with Williams running for four yards down to the 1-yard before Bo Nix faked it to Williams and ran around the end untouched into the end zone to make it 17-7.
In the fourth, Auburn led 20-7 and had its chance to pull away, but Ole Miss scraped together a 15-play, 91-yard scoring drive to make it 20-14 with 5:45 left — and suddenly bring trouble to Jordan-Hare after much of the student section and some of the general admission fans had left the stadium presumably thinking the Tigers had the game in hand.
Ole Miss threatened in the final moments after Anders Carlson missed a 49-yarder that could’ve put the game on ice. The Rebels charged to the Ole Miss 35-yard line before Auburn came up with a stop on fourth and 3 to get out of it with a win.
Pappoe and Big Kat Bryant pressed Plumlee and Tutt came up with the game-sealing interception on the final play.
Auburn enters a bye next week before hosting Georgia in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
On top of Davidson and Dinson, Auburn’s leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow did not play, still returning to full strength after an injury suffered in early October.
“Big win for us,” Malzahn said, all told after his team picked up its seventh win. “The great thing is, now, we have a week off and we need it. We’re a little banged up. We need to heal up. The off week couldn’t come at a better time.
“But, real proud of our group, getting a victory.”