OXFORD, Miss. — Sometimes in college football, all it takes for one team to win is for the other team to blink.
That’s exactly what happened in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday night as No. 15 Auburn used a clutch fourth quarter to knock off Ole Miss 40-29. The Tigers (6-2, 4-1 SEC) captured their fifth straight win and kept their hopes of creating some SEC title game chaos alive after landing a late knockout punch to Ole Miss (3-5, 1-4 SEC) and an incredible Chad Kelly.
The Ole Miss quarterback threw for 465 yards and 3 touchdowns against an Auburn defense that had been one of the best in the SEC through its first seven games of the season. But Auburn got the stops it needed late against the Rebels offense — most notably a game-changing interception from one of its few defensive bright spots, senior cornerback Josh Holsey.
Auburn stayed focused in its first tense game since the season-turning LSU win. Now it has its eyes wide-open to what would be a fantastic season on the Plains.
Josh Holsey intercepts Chad Kelly inside Auburn territory in the fourth quarter.
Kelly had a record-breaking night against an Auburn defense that was scattered throughout, but he finally had his one mistake on a drive that looked like it was going to give Ole Miss a late lead.
After Evan Engram surprisingly dropped a surefire touchdown pass on second down, Holsey picked off a pass from Kelly at the Auburn 28-yard line and returned it to the Ole Miss 25. A few plays later, Auburn went up by 11 points with a Kerryon Johnson touchdown run.
That quick swing in Auburn momentum turned the game from a near-certain Ole Miss lead to a virtually insurmountable one for the Rebels.
Auburn made a fourth-down stop in its own territory again on the following drive, and the offense worked the clock with Kamryn Pettway — who had a career-high 236 rushing yards.
Would Ole Miss be a major threat to Auburn’s SEC hot streak?
Gus Malzahn and his staff said it all week — it didn’t matter that Ole Miss had a losing record on the season. The Rebels are still a quality team, and they play well at home. Those words rang true Saturday night as Ole Miss traded punches with Auburn throughout the contest.
Kelly’s big-play capabilities were set to test an Auburn defense that had been teeing off on opponents in recent weeks, and he delivered. Ole Miss challenged Auburn through the air from the opening drive of the game with a versatile group of receivers. Once that happened, the running game opened up for the Rebels.
Defensively, Ole Miss adjusted well to the running game of Auburn after the first couple of drives. That forced Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to dial up some more tricks, including the team’s first pass to a tight end since the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2014 season.
In the end, Auburn’s defense made the key stops needed in the second half to grab the victory. But it came against an Ole Miss team that looked like the ranked team it was for most of the season.
What in the world happened to Auburn’s pass defense?
Heading into this matchup, Auburn hadn’t allowed more than 19 first downs or 260 passing yards in an entire game. Ole Miss broke that behind Kelly — in the first half.
Kelly is undoubtedly an excellent quarterback, but Auburn made things too easy on him, especially with an offensive line that was down two regular starters. He started with a steady diet of quick throws, but he was hitting nearly every type of pass by the second quarter.
Auburn’s pass coverage was too soft at times, and his side won plenty of 50-50 balls in 1-on-1 coverage. It took a while for the Auburn defensive line to start getting to Kelly for sacks. Missed tackles in the second and third levels didn’t help matters, either, for an Auburn defense that looked nothing like the unit that played the first seven games of the season.
The Tigers won’t have to play another quarterback as strong as Kelly in the regular season, but Georgia’s Jacob Eason and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts — especially the latter — are two true freshmen who can make some huge plays if given the opportunities. Even with the victory and the fourth-quarter interception, Auburn needs to figure out what happened in Oxford with its pass defense Saturday night.
6. That’s how many pass defenses Holsey had Saturday night for Auburn. He was the best cover corner on the field for the Tigers, and he came up with five pass breakups and the game-changing interception. The senior has played extremely well after returning from a pair of injury-affected seasons, and Auburn can thank him for keeping the winning streak alive.