Auburn struggles but wrestles lead away in second half
By ANDY BITTERabitter@ledger-enquirer.com
AUBURN, Ala. — Skeptics poked holes in Auburn's first two victories this season, pointing out that Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State were hardly top-notch competition.
There's not much they can say after Saturday night.
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Auburn passed its first major test of the season, pulling out a 41-30 victory against West Virginia before a rain-soaked capacity crowd of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"We played a good football game at times," Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. "We had to overcome more adversity than we probably did the first two weeks. It’s a sign of a team believing and coming together."
The Tigers (3-0) kept pace with the Mountaineers' high-powered offense, led by the combination of quarterback Chris Todd and wide receiver Darvin Adams, who hooked up for three touchdowns on the evening. Their third — a 17-yard strike with 12:07 left in the game — gave Auburn its first lead of the night at 34-30.
Linebacker Craig Stevens sealed the win, tipping a screen pass from West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown to himself before dodging tacklers for 15 yards on his way to the end zone with 3:41 to play.
"When I got going, I wasn't going to take no for an answer," Stevens said.
Auburn finished the game with five interceptions and six total takeaways.
"It was a big game for our defense," Stevens said. "We never lost our confidence. We knew if we'd go out there and play our game, we'd eventually turn it around."
Unlike Auburn's first two games, the Tigers struggled at times in a back-and-forth contest. West Virginia (2-1) rolled up 509 yards of total offense, building leads of 14-0, 21-10 and 27-20 thanks to the play-making ability of its offensive stars.
Running back Noel Devine proved last year's career-best 207-yard rushing effort against Auburn was no fluke. The 5-foot-8 speedster ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns Saturday night.
Brown, despite the interceptions, was also a handful, throwing for 221 yards and a score and escaping from would-be tacklers throughout the evening, adding another 66 yards on the ground.
"He's quick," said cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who had an interception. "You would think he has something on his jersey, the way he keeps slipping away."
The Mountaineers extended a 21-20 halftime lead on Devine's third touchdown run, a 12-yard draw play up the middle midway through the third quarter. They missed the extra point, however, keeping the lead at 27-20.
Auburn, which topped 300 yards in each of its first two games, found success on the ground much tougher against West Virginia. Ben Tate ran for 75 yards and Onterio McCalebb 20, neither averaging 4 yards per carry. The Tigers finished with exactly 100 rushing yards.
Instead, Auburn went to the air. Todd dumped off a pass to Mario Fannin, who turned upfield and burst past defenders for an 82-yard touchdown to tie the game at 27 halfway through the third quarter.
West Virginia answered with a 28-yard field goal by Tyler Bitancurt to go up by three. The Mountaineers got the ball back after stopping Auburn on a fourth down early in the fourth quarter, but Brown overthrew Devine on a screen pass, right into the arms of Tigers defensive tackle Jake Ricks, who rumbled 21 yards to the WVU 19-yard line.
That set up Todd's third hook-up with Adams that made it 34-30 Tigers. Adams, who finished with 80 receiving yards, became the first Auburn receiver to have three touchdown receptions in a game since Alexander Wright scored four times against Pacific in 1989.
"I want to thank Chris for having the trust to throw me the ball," Adams said. "I work a lot with Chris after practice getting our timing down. He has a lot of trust in me."
Todd was 16-for-31 for 284 yards and four touchdown passes, the first Auburn quarterback to throw for four scores in a game since Daniel Cobb in 2001.
"There were times when we weren’t moving the football," Chizik said. "But you looked in his eyes and all you saw was confidence."
Auburn, despite its 3-0 start, is still trying not get ahead of itself.
"Our goal is to just to take it game by game," Stevens said. "We have a 12-round fight ahead of us and this was Round 3."