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Lit up early, the Auburn defense showed resilience against Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. -- For a moment, it looked like the Auburn defense from 2014 and 2015 was going to rear its ugly head against Ole Miss on Saturday.

There was little to no resistance from Auburn as Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly marched his group down the field and scored touchdowns on each of the Rebels' first two drives. This was an Auburn defense that had not allowed more than two touchdowns in a game all season, but the Tigers were down 14-7 midway through the first quarter. They were stunned.

By the end of the half, Kelly had already thrown for 295 yards, plus the two touchdowns, and the Rebels were ahead, 22-20. At the rate it was going, Kelly was going to set a new SEC record, and Auburn was going to lose any chance it had at winning the SEC West division.

The defense didn't panic, though. It simply made adjustments.

"A lot of adjustments," Auburn cornerback Joshua Holsey said. "We had to really stop the backside. They were killing us backside with slants and the back-shoulder [throws], so we just made a few tweaks for our defense trying to take that away, trying to make them beat us with other players because we gave up too many yards with the quick game."

That quick game, with quick passes from Ole Miss, neutralized Auburn's pass rush, but the message to the defensive line at halftime was simple -- stick with it.

Whatever was said at halftime, whatever adjustments were made, they worked. The Auburn defense came out in the second half and played arguably its best half of football all season. It didn't keep Ole Miss out of the end zone completely, but it held the Rebels to just seven points and made the two biggest plays of the game -- and maybe the season.

The first was goal-line stand early in the third quarter.

Down inside the 5-yard line, the Tigers stuffed Ole Miss backup quarterback Jason Pellerin on back-to-back short-yardage runs and forced a critical turnover on downs. Some will question the play-call, especially on fourth down, but that doesn't take away from what the defense did.

"That was a great play," Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson said of the fourth-down stop. "Devaroe [Lawrence] made a play. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, so it was a great effort by him."

Then, midway through the fourth quarter with the Rebels driving to take the lead, Holsey jumped a route, intercepted Kelly and returned it 47 yards into Ole Miss territory.

"It was probably the play of the game," Malzahn said. "Because, at that point, it was kind of back-and-forth. When he returned that, it flipped the field and gave the offense a short field. I think we were able to score a touchdown there, and that really put the game away."

Two plays. That's all it took.

Kelly finished with 465 yards passing, breaking the Ole Miss single-game record set by Archie Manning in 1969, but none of that mattered when the game was over. All that mattered was the final score -- Auburn 40, Ole Miss 29. All that mattered was that the Tigers had won their fifth straight game thanks to two game-changing plays by the defense.

"It was the way they came back and bounced back in the second half," Malzahn said. "To hold [Ole Miss] to seven points -- they're a really good offensive team, and I think everybody knows that. They score a whole lot of points against a whole lot of good teams. I'm proud of our defense for the way they responded in the second half."

This game was coming eventually. The Auburn defense wasn't going to hold down every single opponent it faced this season. That's just not realistic. But this group responded, made the plays at the right times, and left with a victory.

That's what separates this year's defense from 2014 and 2015.

"It's good for us to go out there and get a win like that," Lawson said. "It's going to help build us and help make us better."