Football By: Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – With Lane Kiffin coming to Auburn on Saturday, his Ole Miss squad grabbed most of the headlines going into the game. The Rebels had one of the more prolific offenses in college football, a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Matt Corral, and if Auburn had any chance of winning, the Tigers were going to have to win a shootout.
In the first half, that proved true. Bo Nix outdueled Corral as Auburn scored touchdowns on four of its first five drives and took a 28-17 lead into the locker room at the intermission.
The Auburn defense had heard enough, though, and following some halftime adjustments, the Tigers shut down Corral and the Rebels over the final two quarters. They kept Ole Miss out of the end zone, which had only happened in one other half this season.
“It was our fight,” Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain said. “Everybody keep doing their jobs, make sure everything is right and be physical at the line of scrimmage.”
McClain led the Tigers with 14 tackles and had two sacks, a new career high. The senior has now had 12 or more tackles in three of his last four games and is up to 12 career games with double-figure tackles. After leading the nation in tackles a season ago, he’s currently third in the SEC with 8.38 tackles per game through the first eight games.
“I told my team I refuse to lose,” McClain said. “I just want to win. I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. I want all of them to follow me and feed off me.”
Not that Auburn’s defense needed any extra motivation, but that chip on their shoulder, the mentality they played with in the second half, it started Saturday morning when all four pickers on the set of ESPN’s College Gameday took Ole Miss to beat Auburn.
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) October 31, 2021
Some of the players saw it that morning. Others saw the screenshot later in the day on social media. Regardless, it added fuel to the fire for the Tigers on Saturday night.
“(Our mindset), I would it’s what we saw on College Gameday today,” cornerback Jaylin Simpson said. “That was what was going through my head once we got in the huddle. They were close to scoring. I was just telling everybody in the huddle, ‘Just remember what College Gameday said about us. Not one of those people had us winning.'”
“It’s nothing new to us,” fellow cornerback Roger McCreary said. “So we just come out, do what we do, and that’s what we did. We proved everybody wrong today.”
McCreary and Simpson both made key plays in the second half, but it was Simpson who came up with the play of the night for Auburn’s defense when he intercepted Corral in the end zone early in the fourth quarter to preserve a 31-20 lead.
That Ole Miss drive was one of five drives in the second half where the Rebels moved it into the red zone, and yet, they only came away with a total of three points. In addition to the interception from Simpson, Auburn also stopped the Rebels on three different fourth-down plays backed up inside their own 20-yard line.
“The Auburn defense is ready for anything coming at them,” Simpson said. “It doesn’t matter what you do. We’re going to be ready. Period.”
Going for it on fourth down is a calling card of Kiffin’s, but Ole Miss was 1 of 4 on fourth down against Auburn’s defense Saturday.
“Fourth down is our down,” McClain said. “Nobody is going to get fourth downs on us. We’re going to fight until the end.”
The same holds true in the fourth quarter where the Auburn defense has been dominant for most of the season. In their last four wins, including three against SEC West opponents, the Tigers have not allowed a point in the fourth quarter.
Auburn will look to continue that streak next Saturday in another showdown on the road at Texas A&M. Maybe this time the College Gameday experts will have learned their lesson.