AUBURN — There's a good chance nearly every one of the 87,451 fans who packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday for Auburn's first home game since September came in with the same question: Would the offense finally get going?
Gus Malzahn's group stumbled in a loss at LSU last week. True freshman quarterback Bo Nix struggled more often than not during the Tigers' month on the road. His backup, the well-liked and super-athletic Joey Gatewood, announced this past Wednesday that he was transferring.
The sellout crowd saw 20-14 victory over unranked Ole Miss. It wasn't necessarily the most feel-good victory, but Auburn's offense did at least show signs of progress.
This story will not be all about about the offense, though. This story is about the other elements of Auburn's victory — a defense playing shorthanded, a special teams unit that did not have its best game, and a change made during the week of practice that could stick.
Here are three takeaways:
1. Defense does just enough without two of its best players.
Auburn fans probably didn't enjoy watching the team's four captains walk to midfield before Saturday's game. All of them play defense, but two of them, safety Jeremiah Dinson (illness) and defensive end Marlon Davidson (back), were not in uniform.
The Tigers would be going up against the second-most prolific rushing offense in the SEC without its top tackler and sack leader, respectively.
But, when it comes to Auburn's defense, that "next man up" edict every coach preaches actually means something. Sophomores Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday looked just fine playing safety in place of Dinson, freshman Derick Hall flashed his considerable potential filling in for Davidson at defensive end, and the Tigers made the plays they needed to anyway.
They came up with a fourth-down stop on their own 42-yard line on Ole Miss' first drive (linebacker K.J. Britt made the tackle), and each of the visitor's next six gained 25 or fewer yards and ended in punts. Their first touchdown needed to cover only 23 yards because of a big play from the special teams. Their second, a 15-play, 91-yard march in the fourth quarter, was helped by two personal foul penalties.
Ole Miss finished the game with just 266 total yards of offense.
2. Special teams mistakes costly
With an offense that struggles with consistency and a defense that has been dominant at times, the last thing Auburn needs is for the special teams not to pull their weight. But those units made key mistakes Saturday.
Place-kicker Anders Carlson missed field goal attempts of 42 and 49 yards on the Tigers' first two drives, costing the offense much-needed points. With 1:30 remaining in the game and a chance to ice it, he missed another from 49 yards out.
The sophomore placekicker entered the game 10 for 12 on field goal attempts. Saturday marked the first time in his career he has missed three field goals.
Despite his first two misses, Auburn led 10-0 with less than two minutes to play in the first half. But it couldn't take that lead into the locker room — Jerrion Ealy returned an Arryn Siposs punt 55 yards to the 23, and Ole Miss punched the ball into the end zone three plays later.
That one return went for 45 more yards than the Rebels had totaled on punt returns through their first eight games of the season (10). That's an area where Auburn really struggled early in the season but, until Saturday, had mostly shored up its coverage.
3. Change at center might stick
About 30 minutes before Saturday's game, Auburn announced that sophomore Nick Brahms would replace senior Kaleb Kim as the starting center after eight games. His name was hardly uttered again after that.
That's a good thing.
Kim's removal from what was an all-senior starting lineup came during last week's loss at LSU, when the offensive line committed a season-high five false start penalties and he had two bad snaps that cost Auburn a combined 31 yards.
The Tigers did not commit a pre-snap penalty against Ole Miss and every snap was on-target. They averaged 3.6 yards per carry in the run game and took only one sack. Malzahn will probably take that, at this point.
Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale.