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Sunday, Sep. 26, 2010

Auburn football: Tigers find successful formula in comeback victory over South Carolina

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn lived dangerously again Saturday night, digging itself into a deep first-half hole against a talented team from the Palmetto State for the second straight week.

Somehow, it’s been a successful formula.

The No. 17 Tigers overcame a 13-point deficit against No. 12 South Carolina, using a strong second half to pull out a 35-27 win before a near-capacity Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd.

Quarterback Cam Newton accounted for 334 total yards and five touchdowns, and the defense forced four turnovers in the fourth quarter to help Auburn (4-0, 2-0 SEC) escape victorious in its third straight nail-biter.

“We are a special bunch,” Newton said. “I’m just blessed to be on a team like this, with guys who want to get better each week and who aren’t getting up on each other no matter the situation.”

Auburn has won its past three games against Mississippi State, Clemson and South Carolina by a combined 14 points. It needed two fourth-quarter defensive stands and a missed field goal in overtime to finish September with a perfect record for the second time under coach Gene Chizik.

“Our guys responded,” Chizik said. “It’s not always pretty. But these guys are fighting, clawing, scratching, trying to find a way to win every week.”

The Tigers out-scored the Gamecocks (3-1, 1-1 SEC) 21-7 in the second half, leaning heavily on Newton and a ball-hawking defense that rattled South Carolina’s quarterbacks.

Auburn forced two fumbles by USC quarterback Stephen Garcia in the fourth quarter, both in Gamecocks territory.

Newton threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Philip Lutzenkirchen after the first to give the Tigers a 28-27 lead. He hit Emory Blake with a screen pass after the second for a 12-yard score and 35-27 lead with 6:23 to play.

“You just read Cam’s numbers and they speak for themselves,” Chizik said. “He was a huge reason we won the football game.”

The defense took it from there. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier benched Garcia for backup Connor Shaw. He threw interceptions on his only two possessions. Linebacker Josh Bynes snagged the first one deep in Auburn territory. Cornerback Demond Washington grabbed the second in the end zone on a tipped ball in the final minute to preserve the win.

Auburn had forced only two turnovers the first three games.

“They’re a mystery,” Chizik said. “Sometimes you can’t get one for eight or nine quarters, then you’ll get four in a half, like we did tonight.”

Auburn’s defensive game plan was to stop freshman phenom Marcus Lattimore, a former Tigers recruit who entered the day second in the league in rushing, averaging 111 yards per game. Lattimore carried the ball 14 times Saturday for 33 yards and a touchdown, averaging only 2.4 yards per carry.

“We stopped the run early,” Chizik said. “That, in our opinion, was the key to them throwing the football and us having a chance at turnovers.”

But Auburn still found itself in a hole early. After trailing Clemson 17-0 in the first half last week, the Tigers found themselves down 20-7 in the second quarter Saturday.

Garcia was sharp early, hooking up with receiver Alshon Jeffery for touchdowns of 30 and 6 yards. Garcia threw for 158 of his 235 yards in the first half. Jeffery, the SEC’s leading receiver, had eight catches for 192 yards.

But Auburn managed to stay close, going on a 12-play, 76-yard drive just before halftime that ended with a 3-yard run by Newton to cut the deficit to 20-14.

The Tigers broke through against the weary South Carolina defense in the second half.

Auburn ran 49 plays after the break, compared to South Carolina’s 22, dominating the time of possession battle by nearly 10 minutes.

Newton ran for a career-high 176 yards, but he finally got some help. Freshman Mike Dyer, the game’s other highly touted freshman running back, overcame a first-half fumble to get 23 carries for 100 yards. He was the first Tigers running back to top the century mark in a game this season.

Auburn finished with 334 rushing yards against a South Carolina defense that had allowed only 179 rushing yards its first three games, a mark that led the SEC and was sixth nationally.

“When we got them tired, I thought we could run the football more,” Chizik said.

The performance came after Chizik publicly challenged his offensive line to be more physical at the point of attack.

“They got a beating from coach Chizik, to say the least,” Newton said. “They did what they were coached to do, and it showed.”

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