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Resilient Tigers are starting to believe

9/20/2009



Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

AUBURN, Ala. -- There was thunder and lightning, a vaunted Auburn running game that never really showed up and a shaky start to the game that probably would have doomed the Tigers a year ago.

Then again, nobody on the Plains can really remember last year.

“All I’m worried about is right now,” junior linebacker Josh Bynes said in the aftermath of Auburn’s 41-30 win over West Virginia on Saturday night. “We got it done, and that’s all that matters.”

The Tigers got it done on a soggy night at Jordan-Hare Stadium when they had to wait more than an hour just to start the game because of the weather.

It wasn’t their best tackling performance on defense, particularly early. Their running game was AWOL, and they fell behind 14-0 less than five minutes into the game.

“This game shows that we can push through anything and endure,” junior running back Mario Fannin said.

It’s also the most convincing evidence yet that these Tigers (3-0) are for real.

If they weren’t already believing, they are now.

In fact, with about five minutes to play in the game, their excitable first-year coach, Gene Chizik, went up to his defensive guys and peered into every one of their eyes.

It was still a one-possession game, and Chizik wanted to see if they were ready to win a game like this.

“Coming into those last minutes, Coach Chizik came over and said, ‘Guys, one more stop, and it’s over,’ ” said sophomore cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who had the interception deep in Auburn territory that turned the game around in the second quarter.

“We weren’t trying to do anything special. We were just all trying to do our jobs. You do the little things and the big things happen. It was a long game, physical game, wet and slippery, but that’s what we are all about.”

The Tigers turned to their defense in the fourth quarter to send the Mountaineers packing once and for all.

Four times, West Virginia turned the ball over in that final quarter. Two interceptions came on attempted middle screen passes. Defensive tackle Jake Ricks set up the go-ahead touchdown by snatching the tipped pass and returning it 21 yards to the West Virginia 19.

Linebacker Craig Stevens finished the Mountaineers off a few possessions later when he intercepted another Jarrett Brown screen attempt in the middle of the line and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.

“If we can get off the field a little better on third down, we’re going to be a great defense,” Ricks said.

The Tigers gave up 509 yards of total offense, but came up with six turnovers.

“It doesn’t matter which way the cookie crumbles,” Bynes said. “They got more yards than we wanted to give up, but we got more turnovers than they wanted to give up."

The other thing this defense has going for it is that it doesn’t have to spend all game on the field similar to a year ago. Ricks joked that he can actually bear to watch this Auburn offense play after keeping one eye closed last year.

OK, not really. But you get the idea.

“It’s great. Our offense is putting up points and scoring touchdowns,” Ricks said. “I love watching our offense play now.”

It’s debatable if even immediate family members enjoyed watching the Tigers’ offense a year ago.

“We changed directions a little bit tonight, but got the same result,” said Fannin, referring to the Tigers’ 300 passing yards after they rushed for 300 yards in each of the first two games.

“We can go a lot of different ways with this offense.”

The direction this program is going would appear to be up, and the Tigers just may find themselves in the Top 25 when the new polls come out later Sunday.