By GUERRY CLEGG
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
AUBURN, Ala. — The Auburn Tigers went into Saturday night’s game against South Carolina sporting a 3-0 record. But haven’t we heard this song before? Oh, yes. The Tigers were undefeated through five games last year before the schedule turned nasty.
This year, they didn’t have to wait until October before the schedule got tough. After a dress rehearsal against Arkansas State, the Tigers had to travel to Mississippi State before back-to-back home games against Clemson and South Carolina.
Perhaps the Auburn band, which played Van Halen tunes at halftime, should have mixed in a little Chicago:
Hard Habit To Break.
A hard habit, indeed. These Auburn Tigers sure know how to stress a fan, don’t they? For the second straight week, the Tigers fell behind early by double digits in front of a raucous Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd.
And this one carried extra significance, being Auburn’s first SEC home game. Not to mention the Gamecocks came in ranked No. 12 in the AP poll.
And late in the first half, the Gamecocks looked quite deserving of their record. Even after spotting Auburn a 7-0 lead, the Gamecocks scored three times in four possessions to go up 20-7, thanks to a blown extra point attempt.
At least this time, the Tigers woke up before halftime, and went into the locker room down by a mere six points after Cameron Newton crashed into the end zone for his second touchdown. Even if the outcome remained plenty in doubt at this point, one thing for sure was clear. Whatever chance Auburn had to win this game rested on the shoulders — and in the legs — of the tall but swift quarterback from Atlanta, by way of Florida and Blinn Junior College.
Newton’s third touchdown run gave Auburn its first lead since early in the first quarter, but that lead held for all of 89 seconds on the game clock.
So the Tigers went into the fourth quarter down by six points again, and the prospects of holding Steve Spurrier’s offense in check the rest of the way didn’t exactly give cause for comfort. It didn’t help matters any when Newton’s fourth touchdown of the night was wiped out by a false start penalty on John Sullen, pressed into duty at right tackle with A.J. Greene out for the season. It went from bad to worse when Wes Byrum’s 23-yard field goal thudded off the right upright.
This was the moment that a young team could have faltered. They were facing a veteran quarterback in Stephen Garcia. Sure enough, on South Carolina’s first play, Garcia pulled a play out of Newton’s book and scooted six yards. But Daren Bates knocked the ball loose, and T’Sharvan Bell recovered it for Auburn at the 26.
This time, the Tigers didn’t waste their opportunity. Newton found Philip Lutzenkirchen all alone in the end zone, and the old stadium erupted when Byrum’s PAT gave Auburn a one-point lead.
It was here that the defense shared the stage with Newton. Another Garcia fumble set up another Auburn touchdown — this time a pass from — who else? — Newton to Emory Blake, who made one man miss, then hopped through two other defenders and stumbled into the end zone.
Then Spurrier (being Spurrier) yanked Garcia for freshman Connor Shaw, who drove the Gamecocks down to the Auburn 25. But the Tigers came up with their third consecutive turnover, an interception by Josh Bynes at the 11 with three minutes to play. But even that didn’t quite seal it.
South Carolina had one more shot. Shaw impressively drove the Gamecocks down to the Auburn 18 with 39 seconds to play. A touchdown and a two-point conversion would tie the game.
But the Tigers’ defense managed one more great play. Shaw’s pass into the end zone bounced off Alshon Jeffrey’s normally reliable hands and fell to Demond Washington for the interception.
Auburn’s 35-27 victory kept this perfect start intact. Here, the Auburn band should have played another Van Halen song — Good Enough.
That was exactly coach Gene Chizik’s assessment.
“We’re starting to have a personality, somewhat,” Chizik said. “We have to play better, play more consistent. But they will fight.”
Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org