Auburn’s chances at upsetting No. 19 Ole Miss disappeared Saturday afternoon when it couldn’t come up with a touchdown in three straight trips inside the red zone late in the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Tigers settled for field goals on all three possessions, giving the SEC’s best offense the opening it needed.
Chad Kelly hit Laquan Treadwell for a 21-yard touchdown that gave the Rebels a cushion at 27-19 with 10:13 remaining, and that’s where the scored stayed.
“It was frustrating to get that close, it wasn’t just the 18 or 19 (yard line), you are inside the five,” Auburn quarterback Sean White said. “We have to get it fixed.”
White played the game with a brace on his left knee, and was a surprise game-time decision. He suffered the injury late in the game against Arkansas, but Auburn didn’t reveal he was questionable until two hours prior to kickoff.
The redshirt freshman ended up playing at less than 100 percent, and had to rotate under center with backup Jeremy Johnson.
White threw for 258 yards, and a touchdown, but the offense as a whole never found a rhythm going 2 for 15 on third downs, and only managing three yards per carry.
“What stands out to me is the 2-for-15 on third downs, and you aren’t going to beat that many people when you go 2-for-15 on third downs,” Malzahn said. “Coming into this game, we were either at the top, or one of the top in the league on third downs and I thought that was a huge factor in the game.”
Despite the offensive struggles, Auburn still had its chances late in the game.
Linebacker Kris Frost’s second interception in as many weeks gave the Tigers the ball down 20-16 at midfield with 13:37 to go in the game.
Johnson attempted his first pass since week three with a 44-yard throw to Tony Stevens to put Auburn at the 3-yard line.
The Tigers turned to kicker Daniel Carlson 26-yard field goal to make it a one-point game.
“We can play with anybody and I think everyone can see that,” Malzahn said. “We just have to figure out how to take that next step and get a victory. We have been close, but we just have to figure out taking that next step.”
A costly holding call wiped out a 12-yard touchdown from White to Marcus Davis on Auburn’s previous drive.
White moved the offense deep into Rebels territory with a 46-yard throw down the Tigers’ sideline to Ricardo Louis.
In the red zone, he threw a pair of incompletions before finding Davis in the flat. Davis made a couple of nice moves to make his way across the goal line.
The flag put Auburn into a third and 14, and White almost threw an interception in the back of the end zone to defensive back Kendarius Webster.
Carlson came in for his third field goal, a 33-yarder to make it 20-16.
The field goal helped steal some of the momentum away from Ole Miss after it scored a touchdown on a quick 75-yard, four-play drive. Kelly capped off the drive with a 45-yard touchdown throw to Derrick Jones.
Jones broke two tackles at the 5-yard line to walk into the end zone.
The back-and-forth third quarter started with Treadwell making his presence known. He had one catch for 18 yards in the first half, but two touches on the opening drive of the third quarter put his team in scoring position.
He completed a 21-yard pass, and caught a pass for 10 yards to get the Rebels into the red zone where Gary Wunderlich hit a 37-yard field goal to give the Rebels a 13-10 lead.
Ole Miss was poised to add to its lead when Auburn’s defense made what was easily its most impressive stand of the season midway through the third quarter.
Kelly rushed behind his left tackle needing just one yard to convert on a fourth down attempt at the Tigers’ 6-yard line.
Justin Garrett and Devaroe Lawerence met the quarterback at the line of scrimmage to force the turnover on downs.
White quickly moved Auburn down the field with a 44-yard bomb to Melvin Ray. Despite facing pressure on the play, White stepped up in the pocket before taking a hit to complete the pass.
Running back Jovon Robinson’s two longest gains of the season, runs of 11 and 22 yards, put the Tigers inside the 10-yard line.
Carlson hit a field goal from 23-yards out to tie the game 13-13 with 3:46 to go in the third.
The wild 15 minutes was a continuation of a similarly tight first half that saw the SEC rivals head into the tunnel deadlocked in a 10-10 tie.
Ole Miss was driving late in the second quarter, but Kelly threw an interception with 39 seconds on the clock to Blake Countess at Auburn’s 17-yard line.
The Rebels had tied the game on their previous drive thanks to a 25-yard touchdown run from Akeem Judd. The key play on the drive was a 7-yard pass from Kelly to tight end Evan Engram to convert a fourth-and-two.
Auburn failed on a fourth down attempt of its own at midfield to give Ole Miss a short field.
“The mindset was that we wanted to be aggressive. We were going to try and go for it on a couple of fourth downs and we liked the matchup we had, but we just didn’t execute the play. That was our plan. We wanted to be aggressive.”
White hit Louis for a 47-yard touchdown to give Auburn its first lead, 10-3, early in the second quarter, but outside his career touchdown pass there weren’t many offensive highlights in the first 30 minutes.
As Auburn’s offense sputtered, the defense played some of its best football this season.
Ole Miss’ opening drive stalled at the Tigers’ 9-yard line, and the Rebels had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Wunderlich.
A lengthy 70-plus yard drive came to a halt when Countess stopped Akeem Judd on a third-and-one behind the line of scrimmage.
After quarterback White an interception, the defense forced a quick three-and-out. Cassanova McKinzy and Carl Lawson teamed up for a sack on third down that earned them a standing ovation.
A short punt gave Auburn a short field at the Rebels’ 39-yard line, and the offense didn’t even need to get a first down to put Carlson in range for a field goal try.
Carlson tied the score with a 52-yard field goal later with 3:52 left in the first quarter. It was Carlson’s fourth field goal from 50-yards or more this season, setting a new program record.