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Auburn’s 3rd-quarter opening drive broke Ole Miss’ back

Things were close until the Rebs fell apart in the third frame.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Mississippi Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

At halftime on Saturday, Ole Miss was punching well against Auburn. After the Tigers scored an opening touchdown, the Rebel defense pleasantly surprised by holding them to a pair of punts, a missed field goal and a made field goal to head the halftime down just 10-6.

Six Auburn possessions. Ten Auburn points. Everything was above board before recess, despite the Rebs’ flameouts on every trip inside the Auburn 40 yard line.

That Ole Miss’ offense could only cobble together six points on six first-half possessions — which included a blocked field goal on the game’s opening drive — was at the time worrisome, yes, but Auburn was floundering with equal abandon. After the first 30 minutes were over, Ole Miss was decidedly still playing with a shot to upset the Tigers in Oxford.

Instead, the Rebels melted into the turf in the third quarter — getting vaporized to the tune of 21-3 in that frame alone — and stood by to watch as Auburn marched for touchdown after touchdown after touchdown. Ole Miss’ fourth-quarter touchdown catch by A.J. Brown to bring the score to 31-16 barely even registered after the devastation of the third quarter, a quarter that included SEC Network’s Greg McElroy openly speculating about Jarrett Stidham’s NFL draft prospects in the broadcast booth.

The Rebs were in this game until Auburn broke their back in the third frame.

Let’s first give Ole Miss’ defense credit for its first-half performance. The Landsharks harried the Tigers’ running and passing attack enough to allow just 10 points through two quarters, the fewest first-half points Ole Miss has held a conference opponent to all season.

With that in mind, then, let us move to the second half — or more specifically, the third quarter. Auburn received the first kick of the second half and promptly stomped down the field astride a seven-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. Not only did Auburn never faced a third down on that drive, the only second downs they faced were second-and-three and second-and-one.

Four first downs on four consecutive plays and a finalizing one-yard TD run from Malik Miller touchdown on the fifth annihilated any chance Ole Miss held of maintaining contact with Auburn, whether we or they knew it at the time.

After Auburn’s second-half opening drive, Ole Miss was skewered.

Ole Miss answered the Tigers’ opening bid with a field goal to bring the score to 17-9. That’s how many points the Rebs would sit on until five minutes remained in garbage time and the game was firmly in Auburn’s hands.

But the body blow of the first drive of the half lingered long, as Auburn erased Ole Miss’ field goal immediately with this enormous 55-yard run from Shaun Shivers that resulted in a touchdown.

Sure, Jalen Julius popped the ball loose at the one yard line, but given what the previous seven or so minutes had demonstrated, there’s no way this bounce goes Ole Miss’ way. Of course All-American sprinter Anthony Schwartz would be there to fall on the ball. He’s run an all-conditions 10.07 100 meters. He’s everywhere.

Shivers’ run exposed the unspoken lessons learned from the Tigers’ first drive of the half: the flood gates were open and there was no stopping Stidham and company from enforcing their will.

If that feels weird to read, that’s because it’s weird to type, and it’s even more weird when one considers that Stidham and company entered this game in pretty dire straights. The Tigers were fresh off a 30-24 loss to Tennessee, after all, a game in which Stidham dinked and donked his way through 45 attempts and two interceptions.

But in Saturday’s third quarter, he and his receivers could have their way with the Rebel secondary, as when Seth Williams hauled in a rope down the left seam for a 62-yard gain to set up Auburn’s second consecutive TD of the frame.

Please don’t ask was Armani Linton was doing back there, because we don’t know either. Props to Julius for the shoestring tackle, though. At any rate, Williams’ catch there was the largest gain on a three-play, 62-yard drive that lasted just 58 seconds. And yes, Malik Miller punched in the punctuating touchdown.

That play, though — the gusto, the confidence to dial it up, the execution, the utter failure on the part of Ole Miss’ defense — is the mere culmination of an onslaught that began with the beginning of Auburn’s first possession of the half. Ole Miss’ final four possessions of the game following their third-quarter field goal ended as follows, in order: turnover on downs, punt, punt, touchdown. The touchdown didn’t matter.

Auburn didn’t score in the fourth quarter, because Auburn didn’t need to score in the fourth quarter. The Tigers did all their work in the third.