401 yards of offense; Tate gets 144 rushing, Todd passes for 212
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Gene Chizik was as confident as anyone that his Auburn Tigers would respond Saturday against Ole Miss and put an end to a skid that was beginning to bear an eerie resemblance to last season’s second-half slide.
A gritty 33-20 upset against No. 24 Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium only reassured that belief.
“They willed that win,” Chizik said. “It doesn’t surprise anybody in our locker room that that’s who they are. I thought tonight proved to a lot of people that we were going to contend and fight.”
Auburn (6-3, 3-3 SEC) scored 23 points in a roller-coaster third quarter, making plays in all phases of the game to halt a three-game losing streak. It was the Tigers’ sixth victory, guaranteeing them bowl eligibility after missing out on the postseason last year for the first time in nearly a decade.
“We could have gone in the tank and gotten down on ourselves,” said running back Ben Tate, who ran for 144 yards. “We didn’t. We led ourselves to this win. This is a big deal for us today.”
It was a day of redemption in several areas. Gus Malzahn showed his former employer, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, that his offense can work in the SEC, as Auburn broke out of a three-game funk with 401 yards, seven more than Nutt’s Rebels.
“I really believe in this offense and knew they were capable of what we did today,” Malzahn said.
Quarterback Chris Todd, who got a vote of confidence as the starter after three sub-par games, answered his critics with a 12-for-22, 212-yard day that included one touchdown pass. He connected with receiver Terrell Zachery on two deep passes, a component that had been lacking from the offense the last few weeks.
“That’s what we’ve been waiting on for the last three weeks,” Tate said. “You can run the ball, pound it, pound it, pound it. That doesn’t matter. You need the wide receivers. Our offense is at its best when they’re making plays.”
Auburn’s much-maligned defense stood tall against a potent group from Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 SEC), harassing quarterback Jevan Snead, forcing three turnovers and scoring nine points. Snead, who had thrown for 572 yards and five touchdowns the previous two weeks, was 16-for-35 for 175 yards with two picks Saturday.
“As a unit, as an overall defense, I think this is the best game we’ve played all year,” said defensive end Antonio Coleman, who had four tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Auburn led 10-7 at the half but opened things up with three touchdowns in a four-minute span during the third quarter. Two plays after Todd hit Zachery for a 41-yard gain, Kodi Burns lobbed a pass out of the Wildcat formation to a wide-open Tommy Trott for a 14-yard touchdown that made it 17-7.
Snead, who has thrown 13 interceptions this season, threw a low ball to Markeith Summer on the next drive. The receiver tried to scoop it but instead popped the ball into the air to Auburn cornerback Walt McFadden, who managed to stay in bounds and turn the interception back the other way for a 29-yard score.
After Coleman sacked Snead on a third-down play to kill Ole Miss’ next drive, Tate ripped off a 53-yard touchdown run to make it 31-7.
The Rebels hung tough, though. Jesse Grandy went 82 yards untouched for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. After an Auburn punt, Dexter McCluster broke free for a 79-yard touchdown to cut the Tigers’ lead to 31-20. McCluster finished with 203 rushing and receiving yards.
But the turning point came when Auburn blocked the extra point attempt. Demond Washington picked up the loose ball and returned it the length of the field for a 2-point conversion, a crucial three-point swing that kept the Tigers ahead 33-20.
Auburn scored 23 points in the quarter. The most points Ole Miss had allowed in a game this year was 22.
“I went through, as everybody did, every gamut, every emotional high and low you could go in 15 minutes,” Chizik said. “It seemed like 15 days.”
Defense seals win
The Tigers’ defense held from there, allowing only four first downs in the final 19 minutes. Daren Bates ended a potential scoring drive by pouncing on a fumble in Auburn territory. McFadden provided the capper, picking off his second pass of the day near the Tigers’ goal line with just under three minutes left.
“We needed this,” McFadden said. “Maybe some of us were feeling sorry for ourselves. Today we showed that we believe in each other, we know we can play. This is not last year. We’re not (fixing to) give up, we’re not going to point fingers, we’re not fitting to say we need a new quarterback, we need a new running back.
“We’re not (fixing to) say anything. We’re just going to go out every week and play how we always play.”