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SUNDAY REFLECTIONS: A look back at Ole Miss’ game against Auburn

The Ole Miss football team picked up a win it had to have Saturday to keep its Southeastern Conference Western Division destiny in its own hands.

It wasn’t an easy win against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, a place the Rebels hadn’t won since 2003. But Laquon Treadwell’s fourth-quarter touchdown grab gave Ole Miss some breathing room, and the defense did the rest, stopping the Tigers on their final three possessions to seal the 27-19 win.

In this first installment of Sunday Reflections, here are five thoughts about Ole Miss’ performance the day after:

Laquon Treadwell is what everyone thought he would be

Any time we talked to Treadwell’s coaches and teammates in the offseason, the opinions they offered on the star wideout’s recovery from that gruesome broken leg in last year’s game against Auburn were universal: he’s better than he was before.

They believed it — and since they were the ones watching him every day during rehab and in workouts, they had good reason —  but until Treadwell started making cuts against live competition and started getting tackled, nobody was sure exactly how the leg would hold up.

Turns out they were right.

Treadwell recorded his fourth straight 100-yard receiving game and fifth this season against the Tigers and showed how physically dominant he can be when he boxed out Auburn’s Carlton Davis on that late touchdown grab with Davis holding on to his jersey the whole time. Davis then jumped on Treadwell’s back to try to dislodge the ball as both fell to the ground, but it didn’t work.

All Treadwell’s done this season is lead the SEC in receptions (61) and yards (870), and with a host of NFL scouts and general managers in attendance Saturday, he put on another show. Fans better enjoy his talent while they can because barring any more injuries in these final four games, he’s headed for the top half of the first round of next year’s NFL draft.

Hello, running game?

It’s hard to put too much stock into what Ole Miss has done the last two weeks on the ground. Auburn is giving up more yards and points than anybody in the SEC while Texas A&M can’t stop anything on two legs (the Aggies are last in the league in rushing yards allowed in conference games).

But any life from the Rebels’ ground game against teams their own size is a plus, and Ole Miss showed some more Saturday with 156 yards on 39 carries against the Tigers after going for 200-plus against A&M.

The common denominator in both games (other than the suspect defenses) is the return of All-American tackle Laremy Tunsil, who has certainly helped, but new center Justin Bell and the interior of the line seem to be getting more push than at any time the last couple of seasons. And when given some room to operate, the backs are making some defenders miss (where did that jumpcut come from, Akeem Judd?).

Now come the real tests against Arkansas (No. 20 nationally against the run), LSU (No. 5) and Mississippi State (No. 60). These may be opponents where Ole Miss has to pick and choose its spots to run the ball, but any kind of success at keeping the defense honest can only help open up more things for Chad Kelly and the Rebels’ aerial assault.

Rebels finally getting off the field

Ole Miss’ defense again looked like a different unit guarding the sticks against Auburn.

The Rebels got off the field on 13 of the Tigers’ 15 third downs, a critical stat given how tight the game ended up being. Auburn made three trips to the red zone in the second half with the game either tied or within a score, and the Tigers went 0-for-3 on those third downs while converting just one of their final seven third downs all together.

Ole Miss has faced 35 third downs the last two weeks with A&M and Auburn combining to convert just eight of them, this after the Rebels’ first seven opponents converted a whopping 43 percent of the time. The Rebels have some players back (C.J. Johnson, Robert Nkemdiche), the tackling has been better since the Rebels went back to installing tackling circuits in practice, and Ole Miss isn’t having to cover as long on the back end because…

Ole Miss is generating more consistent pressure

When the Rebels overwhelmed New Mexico State for four sacks back on Oct. 10, the number nearly matched Ole Miss’ total for the entire season (5) at that point. But the Rebels have ratcheted up the pressure as of late.

Ole Miss sacked Auburn quarterback Sean White three times Saturday and hurried him six other times. Defensive end Marquis Haynes recorded his second straight two-sack game, and tackles Robert Nkemdiche and Breeland Speaks are doing a nice job of collapsing the pocket up the middle when they’re on the field at the same time.

Ole Miss now has 16 sacks, which has the Rebels in the middle of the pack in the SEC after being at the bottom of that category after the first five weeks of the season.

“I believe that, in my 35 and a half years of coaching, you get better or you get worse,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said of the newfound pass rush. “You’ve got to have the mindset that I’m going to find a way to get there. (Defensive line coach Chris) Kiffin has done a good job with them.”

Rebels reverse trend on the road

I mentioned this in my column from Saturday (which you can read here), but it would’ve been easy for fans to start thinking the worst when White hit a wide-open Ricardo Louis down the middle of the field for a 47-yard touchdown on the second play of the second quarter to give Auburn a 10-3 lead.

Ole Miss had been outscored 102-60 in its last 10 quarters on the road entering Saturday’s game. Throw in last year’s blowout losses to Arkansas and TCU, and the Rebels had been outscored 184-80 in their last five games outside of Oxford.

But the Rebels answered that score two possessions later on Judd’s 25-yard touchdown run and settled in. Ole Miss broke through with Kelly’s 45-yard bomb to Derrick Jones for a 20-13 lead late in the third quarter it never relinquished and delivered the knockout blow with Treadwell’s scoring grab to win for just the second time in its last seven games away from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

The Rebels have their division destiny in their control for another week as a result.