OXFORD, Miss. — Thanks to a porous Ole Miss defense and JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn's offense is back on track.
Behind Whitlow's career-high 170 yards on the ground, Auburn's offense scored 30 points on an FBS opponent for this first time this year as the Tigers beat Ole Miss on Saturday in Oxford, 31-16.
Whitlow (shoulder) was questionable before the game after Gus Malzahn called him "day-to-day" this week. He claimed the lead back role from the opening drive, racking up 208 yards from scrimmage and an opening-drive receiving touchdown on the day.
"Great day," Auburn running back Malik Miller said of Whitlow's performance. "A great day, same day you saw, man. Just, you know, his will to not be taken down. Even playing through the pain and everything, he's just being a beast out there."
The outing was Whitlow's third 100-yard game of the season. The redshirt freshman's rushing total is up to 626 for the season, breathing life back into's Auburn's hopes of boasting a 10th straight 1,000-yard rusher.
Collectively, Auburn's 269 yards on the ground were its most against an FBS foe this season and the highest mark against a Power 5 opponent since last season's home victory over Louisiana-Monroe.
"It was an emphasis on running the ball effectively this week," Miller said. "They challenged us and we answered the call. I can't be more proud of the guys in my room, the O-line is stepping — up the whole team, the whole unit. I just couldn't be more proud of those guys."
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After a productive week of practice for the running back room, Miller said the unit knew a performance like this could be in store. So they stuck to a mantra.
"As running backs, the running back group, we had a slogan this week," Miller said. "We said 'empty the tank.' Go out there, and whatever you got in you, leave it on the field. You know? I'm going to sleep good on this ride going back home because the tank is empty."
Returning from injury for the third straight week, Whitlow most notably embodied that slogan, consistently seeking contact and weaving through the second level of the Ole Miss defense.
"It gives us all motivation because it's a next-man-up mentality," Miller said of Whitlow playing through injury. "We see one hurting, we step up and be there for him. Just to see him be that tough and be that guy and tough it out, it's always like, hey man, he's fighting for this team; we all need to rally behind and fight for him and fight with him.
"You see it so much. That's just Boobee. That's what he does."
For all the glamour for Whitlow in the best showing of his young Auburn career, a glaring fault reared its turnover-prone head again.
Like the team's last trip to Mississippi — a 23-9 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago — Whitlow fumbled just outside the goal-line on a long touchdown run.
Whitlow burst through the line of scrimmage untouched on a draw in the third quarter. He broke a tackle in the secondary before being grabbed inside the 5-yard line. He then fumbled into the end zone.
But unlike the loss to Miss State, Auburn scored anyway, as freshman receiver Anthony Schwartz leaped on the loose pigskin for his third rushing touchdown of the season.
"I thought was one of the big plays in the game," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said of the run. "I know we fumbled going in, but Schwartz was pretty opportunistic right there jumping on that."
Whitlow's day was cut short in the third quarter, however. After a 27-yard run, Whitlow pulled up on Auburn sideline and was attended to by trainers. He didn't re-enter.
"You know, I really don't know the details yet," Malzahn said of the injury. "I saw him in the locker room. We'll find out more."
Against a run defense that entered the game ranked No. 111 nationally, Auburn's backfield was able to flesh out some of its recent kinks and begin to sort through a more organized pecking order.
As Malzahn promised this past week, true freshman back Shaun Shivers was given more touches — 10 for 45 yards, to be exact. Former starter Kam Martin only entered the game well into the fourth quarter. The offense continued to utilize Schwartz in the speed-sweep game for one 16-yard burst.
And Miller, the team's apparent No. 3 back who had been all but written off as a backfield contender in the preseason after an injury-prone career, saw his first two carries of the game both go for short touchdowns.
"It means a lot," Miller said of his increased role. "You work hard, and it's good. You go through life and you put a lot of work into something you want, you see the fruits of your labor. That's always something that's a great feeling."
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