Auburn fans probably won’t remember the mistakes Sean White made Thursday night in his first career start on the road.
They will remember the 34-yard strike to Ricardo Louis at Commonwealth Stadium that helped put Kentucky away in a 30-27 must-win game.
Louis’ reception down to the Wildcats’ 12-yard line set up a 3-yard touchdown run from Peyton Barber with 7:56 to go in the game.
Barber’s second touchdown gave the Tigers the spark they needed to stop a five-game SEC losing streak.
"We needed this win, especially this SEC win," Louis said. "We got it, and it's going to give us confidence going forward. Whoever is next is going to have to saddle up."
Kentucky cut the deficit to 30-27 behind Mikel Horton’s 1-yard TD run with 4:06 left, and forced Auburn to punt with 2:10 remaining.
The Wildcats made it to midfield, but turned the ball over on downs thanks to Jonathan Jones breaking up a deep pass attempt, and linebacker Justin Garrett tackling quarterback Patrick Towles behind the line of scrimmage on fourth down.
"As a defense we knew we had played kind of average throughout the game," linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said. "We knew the offense trusted us enough to punt the ball off instead of going for it. By them putting their trust in us it gave us a lot of momentum."
In the first half, it looked like Auburn's offense might take over behind a focused performance from White.
Malzahn opened up competition at quarterback during the bye week, but decided against going back to Jeremy Johnson.
White was named Auburn's starter shortly before kickoff, and he rewarded his coach with a career-best 255 yards passing.
The Tigers’ offense also benefited early from opening up his playbook.
"We wanted to be more aggressive," Malzahn said. "We started to settle in, and started to get some rhythm in practice. The week off was really big for us. We wanted to come out with an aggressive mindset, and he (White) did a good job. We made some plays through the air."
White had more yards passing in the first eight minutes than he did in his previous start against San Jose State, and Auburn scored touchdowns on its first two possessions.
Auburn’s touchdown on its opening drive was the first time since a week one matchup against Louisville that the Tigers scored on their opening possession.
All three of the redshirt freshman completions on the drive moved the chains on third downs. He connected on a pair of long throws to Ricardo Louis for 27- and 22-yards to get inside the red zone where Peyton Barber scored a 1-yard touchdown.
Louis was White’s go-to-guy in the quarter as he caught five passes for 114 yards, and finished with a career-high 154 receiving yards. A season-long 41-yard reception on Auburn’s second drive was the key play on a seven-play, 59-yard scoring drive.
Freshman running back Kerryon Johnson scored his first touchdown in an Auburn uniform on a 6-yard run to put the Tigers up 14-7 with 6:10 to go in the first quarter.
Auburn went into halftime with a 23-10 lead thanks to three second quarter field goals. Daniel Carlson connected from 34-, 29- and 52-yards to make it a two-possession game.
Carlson’s third field goal came as time expired in the first half with Kentucky fans breathing a sigh of relief.
The Tigers forced a quick three and out to get the ball back at midfield with 47 seconds to go.
Before the field goal attempt, an uncovered Tony Stevens made a spectacular catch for Auburn in the corner of the end zone that almost went for a touchdown. Stevens caught the ball falling backwards out of bounds. His arm hit the white chalk outline before he was able to get his foot down in the field of play.
Officials upheld the ruling of an incomplete pass on review.
While the bye week produced tangible improvements on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive performance was more of a mixed bag.
Kentucky answered Auburn’s opening touchdown thanks to a long run from running back Boom Williams. He gashed the Tigers’ defensive line for a 60-yard run down to the 3-yard line. Williams put the ball in the end zone two players later.
The Wildcats threatened to tie the game in the second quarter with another extended drive, but defensive back Carlton Davis picked Patrick Towles off in the end zone.
It was the freshman’s second interception in as many games, and snapped Kentucky’s streak of 20 straight red zone conversions.
Auburn’s defense also struggled getting Kentucky off the field on third downs. The Wildcats converted 4 of 7 third down attempts in the first half, and all four came in situations with the offense needed at least 8 yards for a first down.
Two of Kentucky’s longer plays of the game came on third downs. Patrick Towles hit Garrett Johnson for a 39-yard gain on a third-and-22, and for 36 yards later on the same drive.
In the third quarter, Towles kept a drive going with a 13-yard run on a third-and-11 inside Auburn territory to get Kentucky within field goal range down 23-17.