AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn safety Zac Etheridge was carted off the field on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital for examination after suffering a neck injury Saturday against Mississippi.
Etheridge, a junior starter, went to the ground with 2:42 left in the first quarter after colliding with teammate Antonio Coleman on a tackle. Trainers ran on the field and immobilized Etheridge’s neck before placing him on a stretcher.
Etheridge moved his hands and gave a thumbs-up to the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd before being placed in an ambulance at the entryway of the field. He was taken to a local hospital for further tests.
“You just hope and pray that he’s OK,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “That’s the most important thing. That’s more important than a football game.”
Initial reports were that he had feeling in all of his extremities.
“He is one tough, tough guy,” head coach Gene Chizik said. “He will rebound.”
The Tigers were relieved to hear some positive news.
“That’s like my brother,” running back Ben Tate said. “We live together. We do everything together. We go to family reunions together. We’ve been through all those hard times and all the good times. I had to get that last word from him that he was OK. He high-fived me. He was in the back of my mind.”
Auburn players huddled around Etheridge on the stretcher before he was taken off the field.
“I walked up to him, and he was like, ‘Just finish it out, Walt,’” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “That was really big. It let me know he was going to be OK. Hopefully, we can have him back next week.
“When we were around him, we just told him we love him.”
Sophomore Mike Slade replaced Etheridge in the base defense and finished with three tackles. Redshirt freshman T’Sharvan Bell, a converted cornerback, played some in the nickel.
“Somebody came in tonight and stepped up,” Chizik said. “It doesn’t mean that we were perfect, but somebody came in and stepped in and took Zac’s place.”
Tate’s 144-yard rushing day put him among some of Auburn’s greats, as he became the fifth player in school history to top 3,000 career rushing yards. Tate’s total of 3,026 trails Bo Jackson (4,303), Carnell Williams (3,831), James Brooks (3,523) and Joe Cribbs (3,368).
“It was just another day at the office,” Tate said. “I try to come out and run hard week in and week out — no matter what the score is. I just love the game of football, and I try to play it as hard as I can on every play. You never know when it’ll be over.”
Tate topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season as well with his sixth 100-yard rushing effort this year, five of which have come in SEC play. He has 1,067 yards and six touchdowns.
“Ben’s a warrior,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “To get 100 and whatever yards he got on that defense is very impressive. And a lot of them were hard yards too. He’s one of our leaders, and he showed a lot of guts. He’s one of the best running backs in the country.”
Running back Onterio McCalebb did not play Saturday, the first game the freshman missed since injuring his right ankle on a fake punt against Ball State in the fourth game of the season.
Junior Mario Fannin replaced McCalebb as the backup tailback, running for 35 yards on six carries. He also caught three passes for 35 yards.
True freshman receiver Travante Stallworth took McCalebb’s place as the speed-sweep option threat out of the wildcat formation. Stallworth had 22 yards on two carries, including one for eight 8 yards on third-and-7, when Auburn was trying to run out the clock.