AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn got back on the right side of the scoreboard Saturday night, snapping a two-game losing streak.
But the Tigers (8-3) had to fight far more than many imagined. Facing a near-40-point underdog in FCS foe Samford, Auburn trailed 7-0 in the second quarter before finally settling into a rhythm and winning 31-7.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wasn't focused as much on the particulars as he was the result.
"Very happy to get win No. 8. Very happy for our seniors," he said in his postgame press conference. "This senior class is a very special group. It's good to send them out on a high note, playing their last game at home. A lot of those guys have just been phenomenal for our program, not just as players but as individuals and the way they've represented us."
Still, it was the second straight contest that found the Tigers' struggling offensively. In a 34-7 loss to Georgia last week, Auburn had its lowest point total in Malzahn's two years as coach. They also gained just 292 yards of total offense, the first time were unable to break the 300-yard barrier under Malzahn.
Those issues carried over Saturday night, as the Tigers gained just 5.6 yards per play, finishing with 386 yards of total offense.
And it started early: Auburn's first four possessions saw three punts and an interception from senior signal-caller Nick Marshall.
Part of the first-half issues Saturday, Malzahn said, was his opponent's knowledge of his hurry-up, no-huddle scheme.
"They knew a couple of our plays early, so we've got to do a better job of dealing with that," he said. "We did get a slow start. Kind of got in some rhythm in that second quarter. We're a rhythm offense, and after that point, we played pretty solid."
It wasn't as if Samford's offense looked any better in the first 15 minutes, though. Following Marshall's interception, the Bulldogs (7-4) moved down to the Tigers' 13-yard line. Rolling the dice, Samford went for it on fourth-and-1. Sophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams snuffed it out, though, dropping running back Jeremiah Gates for no gain at the 5:39 mark of the opening period.
But scoreless both teams would stay at the end of the first quarter, only the second time this season the Tigers didn't get on the board in the opening stanza.
In fact, it was the visitors that drew first blood, as quarterback Michael Eubank found tight end Tony Philpot for a 7-yard score with 7:49 remaining before the half.
After that score, Auburn's offense woke up. It started with a bang on the ensuing possession, with Marshall finding junior receiver Sammie Coates downfield for a 49-yard gain.
Two plays later, Quan Bray ran around the left side of the offensive line and into the end zone from 23 yards out. It was the type of drive that has epitomized Auburn under Malzahn: three plays, 73 yards and only 1:06 off the clock.
From there, the Tigers' defense clamped down on the Bulldogs, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs. Auburn's offense rewarded the defense's stingy play by ending the half on a 10-0 run.
The first was a 29-yard field goal from Daniel Carlson with 2:24 remaining in the half.
Starting at Samford's 44-yard line, Auburn elected to keep it on the ground. Every play on the drive was a run, with one from Bray (11 yards), four from senior Cameron Artis-Payne (27 yards) and one from Marshall (loss of six). Following Marshall's loss, the Tigers called upon Carlson, and he didn't let them down, nailing it from 29 yards out.
Once the Tigers got the ball back, they marched down the field once more, driving 68 yards in 49 seconds to score their second touchdown of the half. Artis-Payne put the finishing touches on the drive, running it in from the 7-yard line.
That was enough to give Auburn a 17-7 lead heading into the locker room.
The Tigers' offense took that solid play into the second half. Auburn scored twice more, once in each quarter. The first was Marshall's only passing touchdown, as he dumped it off to fellow senior Corey Grant.
The running back did the rest, as he took it in for a 13-yard score at the 8:36 mark of the third quarter.
True freshman running back Roc Thomas put the icing on the cake of the victory, scoring on a 1-yard run — his second career rushing touchdown — with 8:44 left.
With another victory in hand, Malzahn believes his team is prepared as it can be heading into the tussle with arch-rival (and top-ranked) Alabama.
"I feel good about where we're at going into the Iron Bowl," he said. "I know our guys will be ready and we're looking forward to it."