Despite allowing 464 yards of total offense to the visitors, including 340 yards passing, it was Auburn's defense that made the plays to win the game on a night when the offense sputtered in the second half.
Despite facing 51 plays in the first 30 minutes and having to pick up the slack for an offense that turned the ball over twice in the second half to keep the Rebels in the game, Auburn's defense bowed up over and over again. Plenty of credit should go to Auburn strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell for having the Tigers in terrific shape because late in the contest it was Auburn's defense that kept bringing the fight to Ole Miss despite being on the field all night.
Things came to a head late in the fourth quarter. Allowing a touchdown with 8:29 left in the game to cut the Auburn lead down to five, the Tigers got consecutive three-and-outs to put the offense in prime field position. The second came following a Steven Clark punt that was downed on the Ole Miss one-yard line by sophomore cornerback Jonathan Jones in his 2013 debut after coming back from a preseason ankle injury.
Forcing a punt from the end zone, Auburn's defense gave the ball back to the offense on the 31-yard line. That led to a 23-yard field goal and a 30-22 lead for the Tigers. Ole Miss had one final shot at Auburn's defense, but it wasn't to be on this night. Allowing just one first down, Auburn got sacks on both third and fourth down by Gabe Wright and Carl Lawson to seal the victory.
Those were two of Auburn's six sacks, doubling the team's total for the season. Wright said it was just a matter of pride on a night when Auburn refused to lose.
"I couldn't think of a better situation to be in," the defensive tackle said. "We were up eight points and the defense had to make a stand. We pride ourselves for being tough in the fourth quarter. I couldn't be prouder of the way I stepped up in the fourth quarter.
"I feel like the pressure has been out on us by our coaches that is was time we stepped up," Wright added. "In the LSU loss, we felt like the defensive line could have stepped up. I feel like we took a step forward tonight, and will keep improving through the course of the year.
It was another step in the right direction for an Auburn team that would have likely found a way to lose this game last season. Despite the turnovers and a lack of offensive production in the final quarter, the Tigers never took their eyes off the prize. Now 4-1 with Western Carolina up next, Auburn took one more big step towards being bowl eligible with the win.
Along the way the Tigers grew up a little bit more. With 14 tackles for a loss as a team, the most since 2004, Auburn's defense showed its teeth Saturday night.
Before the season started there were two huge games in the first five weeks of the season for Gus Malzahn's club. The first was Mississippi State and the second was Saturday night against Ole Miss. Now with both in the win column Auburn has put itself in a position for bigger and better things.
Getting huge production from guys like Lawson should mean continued improvement for a defense that has shown signs of turning the corner. While that's still a long way from happening, Lawson noted for a moment in time he felt it happening. "We have a lot of potential and I think we came together collectively tonight and we executed," the freshman defensive end said.