KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- On a day when the offense rushed for 444 yards and the defense allowed just three points in the second half, the Auburn special teams made the biggest impact in the Tigers’ 55-23 victory at Tennessee on Saturday.
“Special teams is key,” running back Tre Mason said. “It's key. You need special teams. It's very important, and you can't forget about that aspect of the game. That aspect can also win games.”
Early in the second quarter, Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC) looked like it might be in for a dogfight. The score was tied, and the Tigers had fumbled the ball, missed an extra point and allowed two long drives that resulted in field goals. It was a team in need of a spark.
Chris Davis provided it.
The senior cornerback returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 20-13 lead. He initially muffed the punt but picked it up, found a seam and took off down the sideline.
“You never want the ball to hit the ground,” Davis said. “As a returner, you're always trying to field the ball -- that's the No. 1 thing. But when it hit the ground, I saw I still had a chance to pick it up and had a lot of room, and I just went with that.
“I think that was a huge momentum shift. I'm a playmaker at that position, and I try to make plays for my team.”
It was Auburn’s first punt return for a touchdown since 2008 (Robert Dunn against Louisiana-Monroe). It was also the third-longest punt return in school history and the longest since 1970.
For Davis, it wasn’t even his first long return of the game. He ran one back 42 yards in the first quarter that put Auburn in great field position and led to the Tigers' first touchdown.
“Chris Davis, he always says, 'I'm dangerous with the ball, I'm dangerous with the ball,' and he's showing it,” Mason said.
Added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “Chris is a veteran guy, and you could see he made some great moves. He went north-south, he didn't dance around, he made a couple of really great moves and had enough speed to take it to the house.”
But the Tigers weren’t done in their return game.
Running back Corey Grant returned the second-half kickoff 90 yards for an Auburn touchdown. It was the first time in school history that Auburn had taken both a punt and a kickoff back for a touchdown in the same game.
“It was a great feeling,” Grant said. “Everybody was cheering, and everybody was happy. It just seemed like the defense was ready to go back at it.”
From there, the SEC’s top-ranked rushing offense took over, but it was the long returns from the special teams that swayed the momentum in Auburn’s favor. The Tigers accumulated 312 combined return yards, a school record, and were just 65 yards away from breaking the NCAA record.
The performance is a credit to first-year special-teams coach Scott Fountain.
“Coach Fountain and his staff have done a great job,” Malzahn said. “We have one of the better kickers in college football; we have one of the better punters in college football; now we're starting to get our return game right. Guys are starting to do their assignments, and if we can continue to improve in that area, it will really help us.”