ATLANTA -- Garrett Harper has been mostly an afterthought this season, a walk-on freshman receiver from Springdale, Ark. who came to Auburn along with Kiehl Frazier.
But he came up with a big play when the Tigers badly needed one early in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Trailing 7-0 in the first quarter and bleeding yardage to Virginia, Auburn forced a punt situation after Robenson Therezie tripped up Darius Jennings for a 1-yard loss on third-and-long. That’s when Harper made his move.
Rushing hard off of the left side of Auburn’s punt formation, Harper came flying into the backfield untouched and blocked Virginia punter Jimmy Howell’s offering off of his foot.
“Our three guys that hit their shield are some of the biggest guys on the team,” Harper said. “I just got to run through there. I was untouched.”
Harper corralled the loose ball himself, although he probably could have picked it up and scored.
“After the play, I thought about it,” Harper said. “I’m just glad I got the ball.”
Auburn blocked another punt late in the third quarter after Carver graduate Gabe Wright sacked Michael Rocco to force Howell to punt from the shadow of his own end zone.
Howell tried to get a rugby punt away, but Blackson batted the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety that gave Auburn a 37-24 lead.
Sophomore cornerback Chris Davis had an up-and-down season, but he came up big in the first half against a Virginia offense that likes to throw the ball short and let the receivers do the work.
Used as Auburn’s boundary corner -- he lines up on the short side of the field -- because of his physical nature, Davis set the tone for Auburn’s defense early.
Shortly after Auburn tied the score, Davis ripped the ball free from Virginia running back Perry Jones deep in Cavaliers territory, although Auburn was not able to capitalize when Cody Parkey missed a 44-yard field goal.
And Davis shut down Virginia’s attempt to come up with a big play of its own on a trick play. Lined up for an apparent field goal, holder Jacob Hodges took off around the right side of the line on a fake, but Davis dropped him to force a turnover on downs.
Midway through the third quarter, Davis already had seven tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
All season long, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has said the Tigers have to win the special-teams battle to win games.
And the Tigers’ special teams units crushed Virginia on New Year’s Eve.
In addition to the two blocked punts, kicker Cody Parkey recovered his own onside kick after Auburn’s second score, came back from an early miss to blast three field goals and punt returner Quan Bray had a 62-yard return to set up one of the kicks.
Chizik had planned the onside kick beforehand.
“We told them after we scored the first touchdown we were going to do it, and I forgot,” Chizik said. “But we promised we’d do it.”
Back-to-back unnecessary roughness penalties in the second quarter helped set up Virginia’s second touchdown. Defensive end Corey Lemonier was flagged on the first play for making contact after the whistle, and cornerback Jonathon Mincy drew the second for a hit away from the play.
Safety Ryan Smith subbed in for starter Demetruce McNeal on three straight drives in the first half. McNeal started 12 of Auburn’s 13 games. Twenty-eight Auburn players saw the first bowl action of their career in the Chick-fil-A Bowl Little-used sophomore cornerback Ryan White saw his first meaningful action on defense in nearly a month.