OXFORD, Miss. — Cassanova McKinzy won the scramble for the ball and Auburn emerged from a playoff pileup to survive and advance.
McKinzy recovered a fumble in the end zone to preserve the fourth-ranked Tigers’ 35-31 victory over No. 7 Ole Miss on Saturday night in what amounted to the first College Football Playoff knockout game.
That roller-coaster play proved to be the decisive blow.
“This was a playoff game,” said Auburn linebacker Kris Frost, who forced the last fumble. “But from here on in, every game is a playoff game. They just get bigger and bigger.”
The Tigers (7-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference, No. 3 CFP) got a reprieve after Rebels receiver Laquon Treadwell lost the ball at the end of a tackle-breaking catch-and-run to the end zone with 1:30 left. It was ruled a touchdown, but the replay official determined he lost the ball before crossing the goal line.
McKinzy dove on it, deflating the Ole Miss crowd enjoying team’s best start since 1990. The Rebels (7-2, 4-2, No. 4 CFP) have lost two straight, and also lost Treadwell to what coach Hugh Freeze said was a broken leg sustained on that play.
“It’s just a really, really sickening way to lose,” Freeze said.
Auburn milked a minute off the clock before Ole Miss got the ball back at its 49 with 26 seconds left and no timeouts. Bo Wallace, who had fumbled at Auburn’s 6 on the previous drive, threw three straight incompletions before a final desperation play went nowhere.
McKinzy and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said they had little doubt what the replay would show.
“I knew it was a fumble and I thought we got it,” Malzahn said. “The coaches up in the press box told us we had it, so I knew we were going to get the ball.”
He and Freeze, longtime friends and proponents of hurry-up football, had both downplayed the significance of initial CFP rankings with big games to play. Malzahn stopped short of saying it felt like a playoff game.
“It felt like a big game,” he said. “They’re still one of the best teams in the country. I had people tell me it was an elimination game but the bottom line it was 3 versus 4. It’s a really big win for us.”
The Tigers gained 507 yards against the nation’s top scoring defense, the only unit that hadn’t given up 20 points in a game coming into this SEC West clash. An Ole Miss offense held to seven points in a loss to No. 16 LSU matched them nearly yard for yard, gaining 492.
Auburn overcame 13 penalties for 145 yards.
It was a compelling duel between two teams tangling for playoff shots, and two quarterbacks swapping big plays.
Marshall completed 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards with an interception that was Senquez Golson’s nation-leading ninth. Marshall ran and passed for two touchdowns. Cameron Artis-Payne turned in another workhorse game, gaining 143 yards on 27 punishing carries.
Wallace was 28-of-40 passing for 341 yards and two touchdowns. Ole Miss had three receivers reach 100 yards: Evan Engram (123), Vince Sanders (105) and Treadwell (103).
Wallace had a 59-yard run and scored on a 3-yarder early in the fourth quarter for a 31-28 lead.
After Wallace’s TD, Auburn answered with Artis-Payne’s 6-yard touchdown run with 10:23 left that proved the last points but didn’t conclude the drama.
The Tigers made a last-play interception in the end zone to preserve a 42-35 win over South Carolina last week.
This final drive proved anticlimactic, leaving the Ole Miss fans in stunned silence.
Wallace’s first three passes fell incomplete, including a drop by Auburn native Cody Core across the middle. Wallace then hit Evan Engram at the 37, Engram flipped it back to Vince Sanders who threw it back to Wallace.
Wallace’s next try fell to the ground, and the game was over. So, too, is the Rebels’ surprising ride into national title contention — in agonizing fashion.
“When you see your young men put so much into preparing for opportunities like we had (Saturday night), you see the hurt that you go through,” Freeze said. “Whoever lost that game was going to feel that way. It was a great college football game (with) two really good teams.”
Treadwell injured his left leg at the end of his third-down catch, and Freeze said he didn’t know anything beyond that it was a fracture. Treadwell was taken off the field on a cart after breaking two tackles and dragging Frost toward the end zone. He pounded his fist on the ground in pain while officials reviewed the play and fans chanted his name.
After Wallace’s fumble, the Rebels held Auburn to a single first down that came on a deflected pass nearly picked off by Golson, who might have had an easy interception for a touchdown. A late hit on the punt return gave Ole Miss the ball at its own 48 with 3:22, but the Rebels came up inches short.
“Treadwell is a very fast and physical guy so when my teammates held him up, I felt the ball was loose and I made a play,” Frost said.