AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves called his group “firefighters,” and they spent most of their Saturday night putting out fires caused by the Tiger offense.
Time and again, the Auburn defense rose to the occasion, turning away South Florida after five Tiger turnovers left the defense in precarious positions. But their water finally ran out.
South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe engineered a come-from-behind win, leading the upstart Bulls on a game-tying field goal drive, followed by a touchdown in overtime as the Bulls upset No. 17 Auburn 26-23 in front of 82,617 at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
“For us to come in here and win is big,” South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said following the win.
Groves said the defense just continued to respond to the challenge.
“It was like, ‘Let’s go.’ That’s what we do,” Groves said. “We pride ourselves on being firefighters.”
Auburn (1-1) turned over the ball five times in the second half to erase a 17-14 edge. Quarterback Brandon Cox threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball, while redshirt freshman running back Mario Fannin fumbled twice. Each time, the defense turned aside the Bulls, thanks to a horrific night by Bulls kicker Delbert Alvarado, who missed three field goals and had one blocked.
But Alvarado made an 18-yarder with 55 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 20.
“People know my personality and history, and I don’t change kickers,” Leavitt said. “I try to go with a guy and stay with him. I know he is a good kicker.”
Auburn took a 23-20 lead on the first possession of overtime when freshman Wes Byrum drilled a 39-yard field goal.
That set up the wining drive by Grothe and the Bulls (2-0). The Bulls converted a fourth-and-inches to the Auburn 14, then two plays later, Grothe found Jessie Hester on a corner route in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown and the win.
“We beat ourselves,” said Cox, who managed only 165 yards on 16-of-35 passing. “I want to apologize to the defense and special teams. They did their job and we didn’t. There were a lot of throws I wish I had back.”
Linebacker Chris Evans led the Tigers with 10 tackles, while Eric Brock and Marks had 10 each. The Tiger defense kept Auburn in the game despite playing short-handed. Linebacker Tray Blackmon (ankle) and safety Aairon Savage (ankle) did not play after injuries sustained a week ago. Linebacker Merrill Johnson injured a shoulder and did not return, while cornerback Jonathan Wilhite re-injured a hamstring. Punter Ryan Shoemaker injured his elbow.
South Florida’s Grothe finished 18-of-27 for 184 yards and a touchdown. Mike Ford rushed for 74 yards on 21 carries. For Auburn, Fannin finished with 62 yards and a touchdown on 14 rushes, while Ben Tate had 61 yards on 14 carries.
It was another lackluster effort by Auburn’s offense, which needed a score in the final minutes of the game last week for a win over Kansas State.
“We don’t have that killer instinct yet,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. “We don’t have the ability to move the ball and wear a defense down. The way we played turnover-wise, we were very lucky we were even close to being in it. We pulled one out last week, but this week, we came up short.”
The Bulls, who moved to the Big East in 2005, have thrived on playing well in hostile environments. They pulled off a huge upset over West Virginia last year and stunned Louisville in 2005.
Auburn took the lead with 1:59 left in the game when Byrum hit a 46-yard field goal, putting Auburn up 20-17. However, the Bulls’ Jerome Murphy returned a the kickoff 59 yards to the 32, setting up the tying kick by Alvarado.
Only a rough outing by Alvarado enabled the Tigers to stay in the game. It took him four tries, but he finally tied the score midway through the fourth on a 38-yard field goal.
“Everyone can see, we’ve got to get better offensively,” Tuberville said.
Auburn’s offense made strides in the first half, but the turnovers proved costly, especially since two came on first-down plays. The Tigers went for it on fourth-and-inches at the Bulls 45 and appeared to have it, but Cox lost the ball with South Florida’s Nate Allen recovering. Fannin then fumbled on back-to-back possessions. On the first one, he lost the ball after holding it loosely on a long gain. The second time, he never completely had control of the handoff from Cox.
Each time, the Tiger defense rose to the occasion and forced a field-goal attempt. Alvarado missed attempts from 37 and 45 yards, then Auburn’s Sen’Derrick Marks blocked a 37-yard attempt to maintain Auburn’s slim 3-point lead.
After struggling through its first game and much of the first quarter against South Florida, Auburn’s offense finally got in gear in the second quarter.
The Tigers scored a pair of touchdowns in the quarter to erase a 14-3 deficit. Fannin scored on a 4-yard run, then Cox found tight end Gabe McKenzie for a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 17-14 halftime lead.
The Bulls quieted the Auburn faithful by scoring on two of its first four drives. A key pass interference call on Auburn enabled a 1-yard Grothe scoring run.
Auburn cut the lead to 7-3 with a 49-yard Byrum field goal, but South Florida came back strong. The Bulls moved 69 yards in seven plays with the score coming on a 2-yard run from Ford.