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The Final Whistle: Ole Miss gets close, can’t close against Auburn, loses 35-28

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No cigar.

Ole Miss Athletics

It was 54 degrees and overcast with a slight drizzle as Auburn kicked off to Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Homecoming Saturday in Oxford— perfect football weather. The scene was set for a classic late October SEC matchup, and the narrative of the most competitive division in college football rang true as the Rebels fell 35-28 to the Tigers.

Kenny Yeboah couldn’t haul in a 3rd-and-long target on the Rebels’ opening possession, and a defense that was hit hard by COVID-19 for the second consecutive week took. Even with a depleted depth chart, the taste of success that D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge’s group found against Arkansas continued early with a three-and-out that made Bo Nix scramble to the sideline and throw it away on third down.

The offense took over and moved quickly. 10 runs for 68 yards put the Rebels in the red zone with a chance to begin with a lead. However, on 3rd-and-goal from the Auburn 4-yard-line, Matt Corral threw his seventh interception in five quarters.

It would appear that Corral tried to force the ball through tight coverage to Elijah Moore (who ran an awful route) but looked it the entire way, didn’t check down to his other reads and threw a bad ball. There isn’t much to justify here on either end, but Corral clearly had the yips.

The defense came back to earth and Auburn moved 95 yards to open the scoring.

And then it happened. John Rhys Plumlee took the first snap of Ole Miss’ proceeding drive.

He led the Rebels into the red zone and the platooning began. Plumlee and Corral rotated inside the 20-yard-line, but it was the latter who made it happen. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby called for a rollout pass, a simple play that isolates the quarterback and his receiver away from traffic and makes for an easy throw. It was exactly what Corral needed and he found Moore for six.

Then Auburn scored again. There isn’t much to say here, as it comes down to the Tigers’ offense having better athletes than the Rebels’ defense. That can only change through recruiting, so there’s no need to waste the breath on negativity.

It was time for Ole Miss to answer and Corral was tapped to lead the charge. He looked confident as he led a five-minute, 16-play scoring drive that was anchored in analytics. Lane Kiffin elected to go for it on 4th-and-5 just across the 50-yard-line and converted.

A few plays later, Corral used his legs to find the paint and tie the game up at 14. That score stuck into halftime and both teams were even with around 200 yards of offense and 15 minutes of possession as they went into the locker room.

Auburn received the second half kickoff and began a bizarre string of special teams slip-ups for both teams.

Tank Bigsby went 100 yards on the second half return and scored, but it was called back for a (questionable) holding call. The Tigers were forced to punt after A.J. Finley made a great pass breakup on third down, but the wet snap went flying through the hands of the punter for a loss of 25 yards and a turnover on downs. The Rebels couldn’t find the end zone and Kiffin sent out the field goal unit. It didn’t go quite as expected, and didn’t make much (or really any) sense, but shoutout to Mac Brown for the great flip!

It was really weird series of events that resulted in a net zero and Auburn took over with the score still tied just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Here’s the thing. Ole Miss’ defense is not good, and it’s already been addressed, but the group that took the field against Florida and Alabama has seen much improvement.

With a big opportunity to set the tone, the Landsharks swarmed to the ball and stuffed three straight Bigsby and Nix runs one-yard short of the first down. Gus Malzhan does not understand analytics or how to win football games and he punted. It was a huge stop for the defense that deserves full mention.

The first play of the following Ole Miss drive was beautiful. Tip your hat to Lebby and Kiffin because it was the right play, at the right time, to the right player. Kenny Yeboah took the wheel route down the sideline and drove his legs inside the 20.

Corral ran the read-option counter to perfection on the next play and scampered in for his second rushing touchdown of the day. He took a shot in the end zone that should have been called a person foul, but let’s call it even for the phantom holding call on the kickoff?

The defense could not replicate its success and Auburn scored to tie the game at 21, which held into the fourth quarter. However, Jonathan Mingo dropped a first down catch and gave the ball back to the Tigers, who went 80 yards on 11 plays for six— but only six, as another botched snap butchered the point-after attempt.

It was time for Lebby to go to work. He called a methodical, 13-play, 77-yard drive that balanced the run with the play-action and intermixed the two backs with passes to Yeboah and Moore. The Rebels moved down the field efficiently and capped it off with the give to Ealy. He went untouched for six and Luke Logan gave Ole Miss the lead. Look at the second-level block from Ben Brown!

Speaking of touches, look at the proceeding kickoff. It was ruled a touchback, and the play was not reviewed (the booth said it gave a look and saw nothing to overturn the call... *collective eye roll*), but the three-blind mice could have seen the finger move. Had it not been blown dead, Ole Miss would have recovered the fumble for a touchdown and would have been in great position to the game. WHATEVER.

Ole Miss made an enormously important stop, but it didn’t matter because the offense punted and gave Auburn the ball back with just over two minutes to win the game. Nix found his receiver Seth Williams who burnt the secondary and scored. The Tigers went ahead 35-28 after the successful two-point conversion attempt.

With one minute and 11 seconds remaining, the game was in the hands of the offense. Corral couldn’t find an open man on four of the first six plays, was forced to scramble and ran both the ball and the clock. It came down to eight seconds and 29 yards.

Yeboah dropped the first attempt over the middle. It may well have scored, but it would have at least given the Rebels enough time to call a timeout and run a second play from about the 7-yard-line. Instead, the second effort failed and Ole Miss lost a game that really should have swung in the other direction.