Auburn found itself in survival mode Saturday morning.
A scrappy Vanderbilt team gave the No. 10 Tigers a scare blocking Daniel Carlson’s late field goal attempt trailing 23-16 to give the Commodore’s offense a chance to tie the game on its final possession.
One-time Auburn target Zach Cunningham leaped over both the offensive and defensive line at the exact moment of the snap to get into the backfield for the block.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur completed an unlikely 29-yard pass across midfield to Caleb Scott. Shurmur under threw the ball, but a bad bounce off the hands of Auburn defensive back Stephen Roberts allowed Scott to make the catch.
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Vanderbilt got the ball down to the 30-yard line where Joshua Holsey made a game-saving interception for a second straight week.
“We all know how to win, there’s a bunch of guys on this team who have a lot of fight in them. When you have a lot of guys like that who deliver? The sky is the limit,” Holsey said.
It was the culmination of a wild morning for Auburn, which needed a spark at halftime with injuries mounting up and a costly targeting penalty sending linebacker Deshaun Davis to the locker room in the first half.
“We probably faced as much adversity as we faced in a long time,” Malzahn said.
Luckily the Tigers had just the player they needed waiting his turn on the bench.
Auburn quarterback Sean White was a late scratch with an undisclosed injury. He was announced on the video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the team’s starter, but didn’t go through pregame warmups with the first team offense.
The Tigers officially announced John Franklin III as the starting quarterback with a tweet moments before kickoff.
Franklin flashed the game-changing speed he’s shown in limited action this season in the first half, but little else.
The offense managed only 124 yards of total offense in the first half.
With Auburn trailing 13-10, the coaching staff made the decision to put White in to the approval of the home fans. The crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium gave the sophomore quarterback a hero’s welcome as he jogged onto the field at the start of the third quarter.
“We built our game plan around John, the first nine and everything that goes with that,” Malzahn said. “Sean threw some and moved around (in warm-ups). He thought he could go and at halftime we made the move.”
White showed why he deserved the praise immediately completing a pass to Ryan Davis for 9-yards on his first snap. He went 5 for 5 on the 12-play, 75-yard drive, capping it off with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Darius Slayton to give the Tigers a 17-13 lead with 10:38 to go in the quarter.
“It looked like our offense,” Malzahn said.
Auburn didn’t trail again with Daniel Carlson hitting field goals from 53- and 33-yards out to keep Vanderbilt at bay.
The SEC’s leading rusher Kamryn Pettway didn’t break his previous career-high for a fourth straight week, but his 60-yard run with less than three minutes to go helped Carlson make it a two-possession game with his final field goal of the afternoon.
Auburn extended its streak of 1,000-yard rushers to nine seasons when Pettway crossed the mark in the third quarter.
The junior college transfer orchestrated a scoring drive on Auburn’s opening possession — Kerryon Johnson scored diving at the pylon on a play upheld by replay — but the coaching staff’s lack of confidence of the quarterback in the passing game made for a ineffective one-dimensional offense.
Franklin only completed two of his four first-half attempts with a long of six yards. He ran ball seven times for 59 yards, but his most notable carry was a fumble late in the first quarter.
Vanderbilt quietly put together a solid first half with its quarterback Kyle Shurmur completing 15 of 19 passes for 97 yards with a touchdown. Shurmur came into the game completing only 53 percent of the passes.
The Commodores mixed it up in the backfield splitting up the workload between three different backs and mixing in the wildcat formation.
None of it was flashy, but it all added up to a 3-point halftime lead. Tommy Openshaw connected on a pair of field goals in the first half including a 52-yarder to put Vanderbilt up 3-0.