Tigers play steady, then make big play
By CHRIS WHITE
ATLANTA -- Before the Southeastern Conference championship game, Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes wondered just what No. 1 Auburn could do if its defense played an entire game with the same fervor it had in the second half throughout the season.
Saturday, he found out as the Tigers limited No. 19 South Carolina to a pair of first-half touchdowns and a fourth-quarter field goal in a 56-17 victory.
“I knew that if we play like that in the first and second quarters, we could be the most dominant defense, the most unbeatable team in the nation,” Bynes said. “It showed today.”
Auburn held South Carolina to 193 passing yards, the least the Tigers have allowed since an Oct. 30 victory over Mississippi. The Gamecocks’ running game didn’t fare much better, and the Tigers’ 39-point victory was the most lopsided in the SEC title game’s history.
“I thought we played well, I thought we played hard, and I thought we played for four quarters,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
“It wasn’t always pretty at the start there, but, I tell you, they responded and did a real nice job. They were physical and resilient like they’ve been all year.”
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore had 84 of the team’s 156 rushing yards, and each of the Gamecocks’ two touchdowns came on first-half Stephen Garcia passes.
“Our game plan was shutting down the run; that’s first and foremost,” Bynes said. “If you let them run the ball, it opens up passes, play action, all sorts of things.”
After the ground game was contained, Auburn set to work on pressuring Garcia and eventually forced him into a bad pass. When that happened, Auburn cornerback T’Sharvan Bell was there to make him pay.
Auburn’s Craig Stevens broke through the South Carolina line to hurry Garcia, who backpedaled deep into the Gamecocks zone before throwing up a pass that Bell intercepted and ran back 10 yards for a third-quarter touchdown.
“When it happened, I knew right then we were going to win,” Bell said. “I thought, ‘This is just going to be the type of game we’re having.’ ”
Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley said he could sense South Carolina’s chances deflating as Bell returned the interception.
“That was a real big play,” Fairley said. “We could feel the air come out of them then.”
Early on, however, there were moments that gave Auburn’s defense a scare.
South Carolina answered Auburn’s opening scoring drive with one of its own, going 75 yards on seven plays and ending with a 25-yard Patrick DiMarco touchdown catch. And the Gamecocks made it 21-14 on their final possession of the first half with a 1-yard Alshon Jeffery touchdown reception.
Several Auburn players chalked up the scores to miscommunication in the secondary, which they patched in the second half to hold South Carolina to a field goal.
“We held our ground defensively and went out there and made stop after stop after stop,” Bynes said. “And that’s why we’re the SEC champs.”
Chris White, 706-571-8571; follow Chris online at twitter.com/le_chriswhite and at facebook.com/lechriswhite.