Auburn football 'extremely confident' in close games like Ole Miss, and fans should get used to them

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Panic could have set in on Auburn’s sideline as the game clock ticked below five minutes Saturday. It likely did for the fans watching back home.

Little had gone right for the Tigers since Tank Bigsby stiff-armed his way into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. They botched the extra point, putting them up only six points on the road. Ole Miss re-took the lead with a 13-play, 77-yard touchdown drive.

Shaun Shivers very nearly made a crucial mistake on the ensuing kickoff, not getting far enough out of the way of a bouncing ball. Officials decided not to review the play despite how close the ball appeared to be to touching his left hand. Auburn’s drive from the 25 started with a holding penalty and ended with a punt on fourth-and-20 that traveled only 40 yards.

So a Rebels offense that scored touchdowns on two of its previous three drives had the ball on its own 45, on its home field, up one point with 4:50 remaining. Ole Miss’ win probability, according to ESPN, maxed out at 76.2% during that late-game stretch.

Yet it was Auburn that won, 35-28.


“You know, that's a great question,” quarterback Bo Nix said. “We're just extremely confident. At the end of the day, we know what we're going to get out of each other.”

Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain reacts to a play against Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020, in Oxford, Miss. Auburn won, 35-28.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Auburn has basically played this same game three weeks in a row. It trailed in the fourth quarter against Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss. All three times, the defense made the stop it needed to give the ball back to the offense for a potential game-tying or game-winning drive in the final three minutes. Twice — against the Razorbacks and Rebels — the Tigers (3-2) won.

That Ole Miss drive that started on its own 45-yard line with 4:50 remaining? It took 2:25 off the game clock, but it gained only 5 yards on three plays. Roger McCreary’s 5-yard tackle for loss of quarterback John Rhys Plumlee proved key — a 10-yard completion on third down still left fourth-and-5, and after initially lining up to go for it from midfield, Ole Miss decided to punt.

“We have extreme confidence in them. Every time they go out, we know they gonna get a stop,” wide receiver Seth Williams said of the defense. “They’re gonna give us chances after chances.”

More:Tank Bigsby equals Bo Jackson record as ‘hard-nosed’ rushing attack returns

Auburn got two against Arkansas, missing a field goal on the first before cashing in with the go-ahead kick on the second thanks to, again, a fortunate whistle. It didn't equate to a win at South Carolina, but the offense did drive 71 yards on 11 plays to give itself a shot at a game-tying touchdown. And against Ole Miss, the Tigers got right back to pulling rabbits out of hats.

The offense took over on its own 20 with 2:25 remaining after the punt. The drive went backwards with Nix getting sacked for 4 yards on first down. But five plays and just 74 seconds later, Auburn was in the end zone. Williams caught a sideline route between two Ole Miss defenders, but the one behind him fell down, and when the junior wide receiver turned upfield, there was nothing between him and the 58-yard, go-ahead score.

“Pretty classic,” coach Gus Malzahn said of the third game-winning touchdown catch of Williams’ career.

Maybe this is the type of game that we should continue to expect Auburn to play. The offense has shown that it’s good enough to put up points, but maybe not good enough to blow anyone out. The defense has a penchant for making crucial stops at key moments, but it hasn’t been stout enough to pitch shutouts. There have been mistakes in all three phases of the game each of the past three weeks.

Report card:Grading Auburn's offense, defense and coaching in win at Ole Miss

And outside of Alabama’s dominance, there really has been no predicting the SEC during this 10-game, pandemic affected season. Auburn's next three games are against LSU (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT), Mississippi State and Tennessee. Any number of outcomes feel possible.

"That's just the way this year is going," Malzahn said.

That may be rough on the health and well-being of Auburn fans, but the team has been successful in these down-to-the-wire games more often than not so far.

The defense still needed to make one stop after the touchdown. Ole Miss took over on its own 25 with 71 seconds remaining. And it never felt like that drive got close to reaching paydirt. Matt Corral completed just 2 of 6 passes for 16 yards. It took Ole Miss 63 seconds just to cross the 30.

Corral’s final pass, with three seconds remaining, was intercepted by Jordyn Peters. Even if the safety hadn’t come up with the interception, it wouldn’t have mattered;Corral threw the ball about 4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Auburn burst off the visitor's sideline in celebration.

Maybe that confidence Nix spoke of is enough.

“It’s SEC ball,” linebacker Owen Pappoe said. “In games like this, any game any week, it’s going to come down to the last second. That’s what you’re going to get in college. You have to play every week hard.

"Games like this are going to keep us ready.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.