OXFORD, Miss. — It didn’t matter how big the offensive numbers on the final stat sheet that was slapped to the podium in front of him.
Gus Malzahn was going to start this Saturday night press conference praising his Auburn defense.
“Really proud of our defense, as far as adjustments in the second half to hold that offense to just 7 points,” Malzahn said following Auburn’s wild 40-29 road win at Ole Miss. “I think our third-down defense was outstanding in the second half. We had a couple of fourth-down stops that were huge.”
Although Auburn allowed an eye-opening 465 passing yards on 59 attempts to Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and 32 total first downs, it did just enough when it mattered most to come out with the victory.
The Rebels ensured season-worst performances for Auburn’s defense in those two areas before the halftime break. But after the break, Auburn made the necessary adjustments to make Kelly look more mortal and the scoreboard look good to the traveling Tigers.
“We started getting up on them a little bit,” Malzahn said. “We played a little bit of Cover 2 to try to keep them from the short ones right there … They’re one of the best offenses in college football. When they’re playing at home, they’re really tough.”
Kelly started the game with a steady rhythm of quick passes instead of the deep-ball style the Rebels prefer. That kept Auburn’s attacking defensive line from getting to him, and he took those opportunities and turned them into consistent chunks of yardage.
That changed in the second half as Kelly was held to 14-of-24 passing for 164 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 game-defining interception in the fourth quarter to Auburn senior cornerback Josh Holsey.
“We had to show different looks, we just had to switch up our scheme a little bit,” Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis said. “We had to play a little more aggressive on the line, and we had to really just get after those guys more than we did in the first half.”
Auburn’s secondary adjusted to the quick game from Kelly in the second half. Holsey’s interception came on a play that he saw in the second quarter that went for a good gain. The veteran leader recognized the look and took full advantage.
“If they zoomed in on my eyes, you could tell that they got really big,” Holsey said. “I’m like, ‘he’s going to throw it this time’. I just jumped it. He would have double-moved me, he would’ve scored. I just happened to see the same play from watching film — lots of film. I know concepts a lot, and I knew he was sitting down.”
Up front, the Tigers got more pressure on Kelly by wearing down his makeshift offensive line that was down a pair of starters.
Auburn relied on a higher amount of rotation up front, as reserve defensive linemen such as Jeff Holland and Devaroe Lawrence came up with huge plays after halftime. Lawrence had what Malzahn called the second-biggest play of the night — a fourth-down stop on Auburn’s 3-yard line.
Gus Malzahn said the two key plays in Auburn's win were on defense… Josh Holsey's interception and a goal-line stand
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) October 30, 2016
“When we play a game like tonight like we played, we need a rotation,” Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson said. “There’s a lot of plays, they were pacing us, so you know you need a rotation of defensive lineman and all of those guys are very talented … I think we put consistent pressure on him. And then that pressure led to an interception.”
After the pick from Holsey, Auburn went up by two scores thanks to an offense that knew the big plays were eventually going to come from their teammates on the defensive side of the ball.
“We had full confidence in those guys,” Auburn wide receiver Darius Slayton said. “I know it’s just a matter of time before they stopped somebody. They’re a really great group, and I knew they were going to find a way to make a stop eventually.”
From there, all that was left for the Auburn defense to do was to slam the door completely shut on an Ole Miss offense with another fourth-down stop.
Auburn forgot all the massive Ole Miss offensive numbers on Malzahn’s final stat sheet and focused its memory on the tweaks from the locker room.
“We’ve got to keep playing through little things,” Holsey said. “It’s just really important to have short-term memory, especially in games when you know they’re going to throw it that many times. He’s going to give you a chance to go make a play.”