AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Marshall dominated with his feet Saturday night.
But it was Auburn's defense who made sure the junior signal-caller's performance wouldn't go for naught.
Three times over the final seven minutes of the game, the Tigers' defense stopped Ole Miss in its tracks, helping the Tigers hold on for a 30-22 victory.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn couldn't say enough about the unit's play in the deciding minutes.
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"They got better from the LSU game to now," he said. "They faced a very explosive offense tonight and did a good job."
Getting the ball at the Rebels 31-yard line and leading only 27-22, the Tigers moved 25 yards in 1:51 to set up Cody Parkey's key 23-yard field goal with only 3:02 left on the clock. The Rebels received the ball one last time, but the Tigers stopped them in their tracks.
That wasn't the first time in the final period Auburn's (4-1, 2-1 SEC) defense came up big.
Forced to punt with just over five minutes to play, sophomore defensive back Jonathan Jones downed Steven Clark's kick at the 1-yard line. The Tigers then kept Ole Miss from gaining a single yard, as it punted the ball right back.
The defense bailed the Tigers out on the Rebels' previous possession in the final quarter as well. At the end of an 18-yard gain by Cameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's junior running back coughed the ball up, helping the Rebels set up shop at its own 40-yard line and a chance to take the lead with less than seven minutes to play.
But senior safety Ryan Smith assured the drive as short-lived, leaping up and snatching Bo Wallace's pass out of the air at the 7:06 mark.
"It was just watching film and knowing what was coming," Smith said of his pickoff. "I was just doing my job."
Smith said he had visions of matching Robenson Therezie, who had a pick-six off Wallace earlier in the game.
"Yeah, I did," he said, "but I didn't want to fumble, either."
Smith's pilfer came with the Tigers holding a five-point lead at 27-22.
Marshall had done everything in his power to will Auburn to that advantageous position. The Georgia native scored twice on the ground — the first two rushing touchdowns of his Tiger career — and ran for a personal-best 140 yards on 14 carries.
After seeing other quarterbacks come into Jordan-Hare Stadium and find success running the ball — most notably Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, who ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns the last time Auburn played at home on Sept. 14 — Marshall believed Saturday was his time to shine.
"It felt great because I was just waiting for this opportunity to show off my feet," he said. "I was just able to get out in the open field and make plays."
Malzahn credited Marshall for taking care of the football despite the number of carries he had.
"He made some very good decisions in the read-zone," Malzahn said. "I can't recall a bad decision."
And he started on the first drive of the contest.
Like they have done multiple times this season, the Tigers got off to a quick start. After forcing Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) to punt on the opening possession of the game, Auburn took over at its own 20-yard line at the 11:47 mark. A minute and a half later, the Tigers were in the end zone. Tre Mason and Marshall combined to account for every yard on the drive, which was capped by a 1-yard run up the middle by the junior running back.
The Tigers had to settle for only six points, though, as they were unsuccessful on a two-point conversion attempt for the first time in 2013. Ryan White — who had scored on a rush and completed a pass to Brandon Fulse on the Tigers' other two-point attempts — saw his throw land out of bounds, keeping Auburn's lead at 6-0 with 10:16 to go in the first quarter.
The Rebels responded on their next drive with a 42-yard field goal from Andrew Ritter, but it would become a familiar script in the first half. The Tigers were scoring touchdowns while the Rebels settled for field goals.
And it wasn't even Auburn's offense that did all of the damage Saturday night. Therezie stepped in front of a Wallace pass with 1:39 to go in the opening period and returned it for 78 yards, extending the Tigers' lead to 13-3 at that point. In a cruel bit of irony for the junior signal-caller, Therezie's pick-six — which was the eighth-longest interception return in Auburn history — marked the first time he had committed a turnover this season.
The Tigers went back to a tried-and-true scoring method on its next touchdown, which came with 5:17 remaining in the first half. Starting at its own 20-yard line, Auburn let Marshall pick apart Ole Miss with his feet. He gashed the Rebels for 56 rushing yards on the drive — which included runs of nine, 16 and 26 yards. His final run proved to be the easiest, as he walked into the end zone untouched from the 5-yard line to put the Tigers ahead 20-3.
Ritter was able to tack on another field goal — this one from 44 yards — just before the half to cut the Tigers' advantage to 20-6 heading into the locker room.