Improve to 5-0 while answering doubters
By ANDY BITTER
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Despite getting through September unblemished, Auburn left many top 25 voters wondering just how good it really is, evident by the Tigers’ absence in both national polls last week.
They answered a few of those questions in a sound 26-22 victory Saturday night against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium: Yes, they can win with more than just offense; yes, they can win on the road.
Wes Byrum kicked four field goals, and Auburn turned in a stingy defensive effort for three quarters to run its record to 5-0 for the third time in the past six years.
“There are not going to be any easy ones in the SEC,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “All of our SEC games are going to be tough. We have to be well-prepared and be prepared to win them in different ways. Tonight, we found a different way to win the game.”
The victory could bump Auburn (2-0 SEC) into the top 25 polls for the first time since Oct. 6 of last year and might foreshadow a season that would far exceed reasonable expectations coming into Chizik’s first year as head coach. The past two times Auburn started 5-0 — 2004 and 2006 — it won at least 11 games and made an appearance in a January bowl game.
Chizik now has as many wins in five games with Auburn as he did in two seasons with Iowa State.
Saturday’s win was his first on the road as a head coach, snapping an 11-game road losing streak he had with the Cyclones.
“That was great,” Chizik said. “That was our first win and our first SEC road win, at a place like this, where no one has ever played here. … It was awesome to see our kids faces after the win.”
It wasn’t like Auburn’s first four victories this season. Although Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense finished with 459 yards, it didn’t light up the scoreboard against a Tennessee defense that ranked eighth nationally entering the game.
Quarterback Chris Todd was 19-for-32 for 218 yards, completing passes to eight receivers, and Auburn ran for 224 yards, led by Ben Tate’s 128-yard effort. But the Tigers, who entered the game averaging 45.3 points per game, found points hard to come by, routinely stalling in Tennessee territory.
They went into halftime with a disappointing 13-6 lead, the result of two Byrum field goals and an 11-yard touchdown run by Tate on their only sustained drive.
The lead was due mostly to a defense that had drawn its fair share of criticism the first few weeks.
The Tigers, who entered the game ranked near the bottom of the SEC in almost every defensive category, held Tennessee’s woeful offense in check for most of the night.
Auburn held the Vols to six points and 207 yards through three quarters, harassing embattled quarterback Jonathan Crompton into a mounting number of incompletions.
The Tennessee senior quarterback threw for 259 yards, most of which came against soft coverage late in the game, but was only 20-for-43 on the night.
Crompton’s struggles were most evident in Tennessee’s success rate on third down, when the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2 SEC) were 4-for-17. Auburn entered the game ranked 91st nationally in third-down defense.
Auburn, meanwhile, plugged away on offense.
The Tigers increased their lead to 23-6 early in the fourth quarter. Todd completed a wide receiver screen to Terrell Zachery, who juked two Tennessee defenders and high-stepped into the end zone with 13:41 left to give Auburn what seemed like an insurmountable 23-6 lead.
The Vols showed some signs of life in the fourth quarter, getting a touchdown on a 31-yard screen pass from Crompton to Montario Hardesty with 11:36 to go. Seven minutes later, Daniel Lincoln made a 26-yard field goal that cut Auburn’s lead to 23-16.
But Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb answered with a 52-yard return on the ensuing kickoff.
Auburn bled the clock before getting Byrum’s fourth field goal of the night — a 22-yarder after Tennessee stiffened near the goal line — that made it 26-16 with 39 seconds remaining.
The Volunteers padded some statistics with a garbage-time touchdown on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Crompton to Denarius Moore at the final gun.