MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Auburn Tigers have become the ultimate survivors.
The third-ranked Tigers were pushed to the brink once again by No. 12 Mississippi only to recover one fumble at their 6-yard line and another in the end zone over the final 6:31. The result was Saturday night’s 35-31 escape act that kept Auburn (7-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) in the thick of the playoff hunt and almost certainly dashed the Rebels’ hopes.
“Our guys really believe that they’re going to win games if they’re close,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s all about the players. They’ve done it the last two years in the most bizarre ways. There’s a lot of champions in that locker room.”
Auburn jumped over Alabama in The Associated Press rankings Sunday, while Ole Miss (7-2, 4-2) dropped five spots. The two sides entered third and fourth, respectively, in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The manner in which the win happened was new but dramatic finales, and tight games, have become Auburn’s calling cards since last season.
— Gus Malzahn
A week earlier, the Tigers needed two fourth-quarter interceptions in the end zone to preserve a win against South Carolina in another shootout. Before that, Kansas State missed all three field goal attempts in a 20-14 Auburn win.
Malzahn is 9-1 in games settled by a single score at Auburn, with the only loss coming to Florida State in January’s national title game.
So this was familiar territory.
“We kind of got used to the comfort of these kinds of games,” Tigers linebacker Kris Frost said. “It was blow by blow, but we believe if it’s close we will win.”
Next up is a visit from Texas A&M, and who knows what kind of ending that will produce.
Auburn did plenty of good things before Derrick Moncrief knocked the ball loose from quarterback Bo Wallace at the 6. And long before Frost yanked wide receiver Laquon Treadwell backward at the goal line, forcing a fumble that fellow Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy recovered in the end zone with 90 seconds remaining.
Ole Miss hadn’t given up a first-quarter touchdown before the Tigers scored on their opening drive. Auburn also was the first team to reach 20 points this season against the Rebels, who still have the nation’s top scoring defense.
Marshall led a 96-yard drive late in the third quarter when Auburn’s no-huddle offense was at its crispest. He was 5 of 5 passing for 48 yards and had a 19-yard run on the drive.
“We had a pretty good game plan coming into it, but they found little creases in it to gash us,” Ole Miss linebacker Serderius Bryant said. “They were going so fast. Before you know it, you’ve already run four plays in just a few seconds.”
Auburn’s defense, meanwhile, gave up 492 yards but also forced the two timely turnovers and sacked Wallace four times against a short-handed offensive line that was missing left tackle Laremy Tunsil.
“We knew coming in it was going to be a 15-round fight, and it was,” McKinzy said. “But we won.”
And Ole Miss is left trying to regroup with a nonconference game against Presbyterian followed by a visit to Arkansas and the Egg Bowl against No. 1 Mississippi State.
Coach Hugh Freeze and the Rebels had to cope not only with the loss of the game and their national title hopes but also Treadwell’s leg injury that he suffered on the play when he fumbled just before he made it into the end zone.
“The message to our team was very simple,” Freeze said. “Our character trait this week was adversity. We’re staring it in the face a bit and that’s life. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
• Auburn-Ole Miss Highlights