War Eagle, everybody! I do hope everyone’s enjoying a happy holiday season! Now, it’s time for another look back, this time, to Auburn’s 2000 trip to Oxford, Mississippi. It had been nearly 2 years since Tommy Tuberville left Ole Miss to become the Auburn head coach, but the Ole Miss faithful were sky-high, at the chance to boo their former leader. Tommy Tuberville was coming back to Oxford, to play a ranked Ole Miss team, and the Rebels were out for revenge!
The 2000 season was one of great promise for the Rebels. Tommy Tuberville and his staff had loaded up the Rebels with a great crew of veterans, including star backs Deuce McCallister and Joe Gunn. The Rebs were led by talented senior quarterback Romero Miller, and veteran receivers such as senior Grant Heard. Head Coach David Cutciffe had continued to bring in great recruits, such as the newly-signed Eli Manning. The Rebels were coming off an 8-4 season, that ended with a rousing, come from behind bowl victory over the Oklahoma Sooners, who were destined in 2000 to win the national championship. For this game, the Rebels were 1-0, and ranked 19th in the nation. Ole Miss had opened the season with a 49-20 pasting of Tulane.
Auburn had limped to a 5-6 record in Tommy Tuberville’s inaugural year, and there were glaring concerns after one game in 2000. Although the Tigers had won their opener against hapless Wyoming, the 35-21 win gave the fans little room for optimism. The Tigers had replaced all 4 defensive line starters, and 6 of the starting front seven. Auburn had two new safeties, on a young defense that gave up big plays in the opener. Auburn did have a veteran offensive line and receiving corps returning, along with 5th year senior quarterback Ben Leard. To try and jump start a non-existent running game, Tuberville had brought in junior college All-American running back Rudi Johnson. Johnson had wowed everyone a week ago, with a dramatic 70-yard touchdown run, after Wyoming had closed to within 28-21. Still, Auburn had to put a team away late in the 4th quarter, that would go 2-9 on the season. The oddsmakers gave Auburn little chance, in Oxford.
Game recap, after the jump!
Despite a potentially uneven matchup, this game would be televised. The ESPN folk were itching to see how Tommy Tuberville would be treated on his return to Oxford. It was a warm muggy evening in Vaught Hemmingway Stadium, and the Ole Miss fans were primed and ready after a day of partying in the Grove!
Ole Miss won the toss, and deferred to the second half. They were eager to show that they could shut down Auburn’s newfound rushing attack. Sophomore Tavarious Robinson took the kick and raced all the way out to the Auburn 47, but the first Tiger drive accomplished nothing. Hoping to burn the Rebs with play action, Auburn instead got flagged for holding, then illegal procedure, and had to punt. Damon Duval’s punt reached the end zone, and the Rebels had the ball, to thunderous applause.
Auburn forced a three and out, but then ran over the punter, giving Ole Miss new life. From the Ole Miss 40, the Rebels mixed it up well, with McAllister runs, and Miller passing to Grant Heard and Lucas Taylor for key first downs. On third and 7 from the Auburn 11, Miller found Grant Heard for the touchdown. Auburn’s corners Rodney Crayton and Larry Casher gave up about a whole foot in height to the giant Grant Heard, and the Tiger faithful were wondering how on Earth they could stop him. Les Binkley’s kick gave Ole Miss a 7-0 lead with 8:03 left in the first quarter.
Tim Carter’s kick return gave Auburn the ball at the 25, and this time, the Tigers fed Ole Miss a heavy dose of Rudi Johnson. Auburn tried 3 runs to Johnson, mixed in with an end around to Tim Carter. Ole Miss helped out with a personal foul, then Leard hit Rudi Johnson on the wheel route for 29 yards, and a first down at the Rebel 11 yard line. Rudi was lifted, and Heath Evans bashed it down to the three. Johnson came back in and dived to the 1, then Ben Leard sneaked it over for the Auburn touchdown! Damon Duval’s kick tied the game at 7-all, with 4:12 left in the 1st quarter.
Tommy Tuberville then went for the throat. A sky-kick from Damon Duval was recovered by Auburn, all the way down at the Ole Miss 37, and the raucous Ole Miss crowd went silent. Rudi Johnson bashed out another first down, Heath Evans picked up five more, then Ben Leard fired a slant to rookie Deandre Green for a first and goal at the Rebel 6. A false start backed it up to the 11. Rudi then burst around the right corner, for the Auburn touchdown! After Damon Duval’s PAT, Auburn led the favored Rebels, 14-7, late in the first quarter!
The Auburn defense stuffed the Rebs and forced another three and out. But AGAIN, Auburn ran into the punter, and gave the Rebels a first down, and Ole Miss was on the move. By the end of the first quarter, Ole Miss the ball at the Auburn 45, trailing 14-7. But, that was about as far as the Rebels would get. Deuce McCallister was stopped cold on third down up the middle, by Spencer Johnson and Tavarious Pounds. Ole Miss pinned Auburn at the three yard line, on the punt.
Pinned deep, Auburn tried a couple of home-run balls to Tim Carter, to no avail. Damon Duval would have to punt TWICE, out of his own end zone, due to an illegal formation penalty. Despite a 43 yard effort, Deuce McCallister returned the ball to the Auburn 37. The Auburn defense stepped up, even with reserves in the game, forcing a bad throw, then Whit Smith and Roderick Chambers stuffed Joe Gunn for a loss. On third and long, Courtney Rose blitzed off the weak side, and sacked Romero Miller back around midfield, ending the Rebel threat. Senior Clifton Robinson fair caught the Ole Miss punt at the eight yard line.
Backed up again, the Tigers went back to Rudi Johnson, who gashed the Rebel defense for a critical 26 yard gain, to get Auburn out of the hole. After another Johnson run was stuffed for a loss, Ben Leard found Marcel Willis streaking down the sideline for 38 yards to the Rebel 30! The Auburn drive threatened to stall, with penalties for false start and delay of game. A little Rebel help kept the drive alive, though. On 3rd and 20, Leard threw well short of the first down to Reggie Worthy, but Ole Miss was called for roughing the passer. That gave Auburn a first down at the Rebel 13. Rudi Johnson pounded it to the seven, then Heath Evans slashed into the end zone from there. Damon Duval added the PAT, and Auburn held a shocking 21-7 lead, with 9:16 left in the half!
Trailing by two touchdowns, Ole Miss answered the bell. Largely dormant in the first half, the Rebel backs started making some noise. First, Charles Stackhouse broke loose for 30 yards to midfield. Then McAllister gashed for 13 more. Romero Miller passed to Lucas Taylor for a first down at the Auburn 26, then McAllister ripped through the Auburn defense for the touchdown. The Rebels had made it look easy, and Les Binkley’s PAT cut the Auburn lead to 21-14, with about half of the second quarter left to play.
Needing to keep the suddenly potent Rebel attack off the field, the Auburn offense responded with a time-eating drive. Auburn knocked out three first downs, before punting back to the Rebels with 1:49 left in the half. Damon Duval’s short punt was downed at the Ole Miss 3 yard line. Rather than test Romero Miller’s ability, the Rebels elected to run the clock out on the ground. At the half, Auburn led the Rebels, 21-14.
Ole Miss took the second half kickoff out to the 27, and the Rebel offense went to work. First, Deuce McCallister slashed out to the 41, with Mark Brown holding on for dear life. Then on second and 10, Romero Miller connected with Grant Heard for 40 yards, down to the Auburn 19. The Rebels and McCallister pounded out one first down, then bashed it down to 4th and goal at the one. Deuce McCallister got the touchdown, but the normally reliable Les Binkley missed the extra point. Auburn clung to a narrow 21-20 lead, with 10:27 still left in the third quarter.
Auburn, needing to eat some more clock and get points, failed to do either. Tim Carter and Heath Evans got Auburn a quick first down, but Evans’ second run resulted in a fumble, and Ole Miss had the ball at the Auburn 49. Ole Miss pounded out one first down, then went for broke on a deep throw towards the Auburn goal line. This time, the pass was picked off by Rodney Crayton, who took it back out to the Auburn 26!
Auburn opened with an 8 yard Rudi Johnson run, then Johnson was stuffed for no gain, and a 3rd and short pass towards Clifton Robinson fell incomplete. With 4thand 2 at the Auburn 34, the Riverboat Gambler made another appearance. Ben Leard found Reggie Worthy for 11 yards and a first down! Then, Auburn continued to go to the air. Three incomplete passes later, it was punting time. Damon Duval punted it to Deuce McCallister at the Ole Miss 13, with Auburn’s young Dontarrious Thomas bearing down at warp-speed. Thomas left his feet, trying to absolutely blow McCallister up. McCallister adroitly sidestepped the flying freshman, and there was no one else left in the middle of the field. The Deuce set sail, and ripped off an easy 87-yard punt return touchdown for the Rebels. Ole Miss opted for the PAT, and Les Binkley staked the Rebels to a 27-21 lead, with 4:53 left in the 3rd quarter.
Auburn’s next possession was a three-and-out job, ending on a delay of game, and the Tigers were in trouble. Damon Duval HAMMERED the punt, which went 70 yards for a touchback! That was ONE way to keep McCallister’s hands off of the ball… Joe Gunn ripped off a 16-yard run immediately, but then it was the Rebels’ turn to implode. Poor passes and an offensive interference call doomed the drive. Ole Miss had a short punt, but a block in the back call on Auburn nullified good field position.
Auburn started at their own 37. Ben Leard found a leaping Deandre Green at midfield for a first down, then as the 3rd quarter clock wound down, Rudi Johnson pounded it to the Ole Miss 45. At the end of the third quarter, Auburn trailed 27-21. Quickly, Auburn was facing 4th and 2 at the Ole Miss 42 yard line. Tuberville rolled the dice again, going for it. Auburn trapped inside, and ran a sprint handoff to the short side. Rudi got LOOSE, running over Ole Miss defenders, and into the end zone, for the Auburn touchdown! 42 yards! The Ole Miss defense was beginning to look tired. With 13:59 left in the game, Damon Duval kicked Auburn back into the lead, 28-27!
Needing to rest a tired defense, get points, or at least regain some field position, the Rebels did none of the above. First, Rashaud Walker blew through the Rebel line on a safety blitz, and pulled Joe Gunn down for a six yard loss. The Rebels then false started. Another Gunn run picked up only a short gain. Romero Miller missed an open Lucas Taylor. Then, Ole Miss’ King botched the punt, getting it only out to the Ole Miss 30. With 12:12 left, Auburn had it in Ole Miss territory.
Behind Johnson’s hard running, and a 3rd down throw to Reggie Worthy, Auburn made it as far as the Ole Miss ten yard line. With 9:07 left, Damon Duval pushed a field goal attempt wide right, giving the Rebels the ball back at the Ole Miss 20.
The Auburn defense responded with an apparent three and out. However, as had happened all game long, the three and out was ruined by a penalty. Pass interference gave Ole Miss new life at the 35. It was not to be for the Rebels, though. On third and long, Romero Miller overthrew a wheel route to Charles Stackhouse. Linebacker Courtney Rose was sitting on the route, and picked it off. Auburn had the ball again in Ole Miss territory, at the Ole Miss 37. Time was becoming a factor, as now there was 8:02 left in the game. Trailing by a point, Ole Miss needed to stop Auburn, and get the ball back.
The Tigers had other ideas. A clock-draining drive of short plays began. Auburn opened with a bootleg pass of 6 yards to freshman tight end Robert Johnson. Leard snuck for a first down on 3rd and short. Clock ran. Heath Evans ran twice, and was stopped cold on the second carry. On the possession play, Ole Miss jumped offsides, giving Auburn another first down, at the Ole Miss 15. Rudi Johnson powered for 9 yards on first down, but his next two carries left Auburn at 4th and 1 at the Rebel 6. Ben Leard sneaked again, leaning his tall frame forward for another first down, at the Rebel 4. The clock continued to drain away. Heath Evans took it to the one, then Ben Leard sneaked over for the touchdown, with only 1:41 left on the clock! Damon Duval’s point-after was GOOD, and the Tigers led, 35-27!
Needing a long touchdown drive, and 8 points to come back, the Rebels’ McCallister only made it out to the 11 on the kick return. An unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Auburn moved it to the Rebel 26. Romero Miller’s first pass hit Lucas Taylor in the numbers, and was dropped. Miller sailed his second pass right to free safety Stanford Simmons, who was so surprised he nearly dropped it. Auburn had the ball back, at the Ole Miss 36! Ole Miss had already burnt all three of its timeouts, and Auburn ran the clock out on a 35-27 win, in Oxford!
The Ole Miss Rebels had been expected to contend with Alabama for the Western Division title, but the loss to Auburn was a blow. The Rebels rebounded with a narrow win over Vandy in Nashville, then comfortable wins over Kentucky and Arkansas State. They sailed into Tuscaloosa to take on a stumbling Alabama team, and got blown out, 45-7, ending any championship hopes. Back to back losses to LSU and Georgia, and a shootout 45-30 win over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, had Ole Miss at 7-4, about where they usually finished. In Nashville, at the Music City Bowl, the Rebels failed to show up for the first two thirds of the game, and fell behind the West Virginia Mountaineers 38-10. True freshman quarterback Eli Manning was inserted, and he led Ole Miss back, but it wasn’t enough. Ole Miss fell to the the Mountaineers 49-38. The Rebels finished a promising season at 7-5, and unranked.
Auburn had been expected to struggle to reach bowl-eligibility in 2000, but after the Ole Miss win, expectations surged! It was now clear that for the first time in 5 years, Auburn had a running game again. Rudi Johnson had finished the Ole Miss game with 165 yards on the ground, and sprang to the top of the list of SEC rushers, a position he would hold all year. Johnson would rush for over 1500 yards on the season, and power Auburn to a 9-2, SEC West-winning regular season. Johnson would be named the SEC Offensive MVP, and had taken the Tigers to the SEC Championship Game, and a New Year’s Day bowl in the Florida Citrus in Orlando! In just his second season, Tommy Tuberville had gone 9-4, and finished 18th in the nation. Were the Tigers “back?”