Auburn engineers escape vs. Utah State
AUBURN, Ala. -- No. 23 Auburn answered all the doubters Saturday. Anyone who doubted that the Tigers are as young and inexperienced as coach Gene Chizik has been saying since last spring saw for themselves at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"The guys got kind of wide-eyed," Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said.
But on a brilliant summer afternoon, against a Utah State team much better than anticipated, the Tigers also showed that they have absorbed one very important characteristic from the team that won a national championship last season. Auburn does not stop to lick its wounds, no matter how gaping, no matter how self-inflicted.
After 56 minutes of being outplayed by their rent-a-victims (price: $950,000), the Tigers stunned the Aggies by scoring two touchdowns in a span of 2:07 and won, 42-38. It may have been Auburn's 16th consecutive victory but the head coach didn't bother trying to apply too much lip gloss to this porker.
"We are thrilled that we came out with the win today," Chizik said. "No question about it, I think it is obvious that everybody that saw the game realizes that we did not play well as a football team."
That is true for the offense that gained one-third of its 364 yards in those last four minutes. That is true for a defense that stayed on the field as if it were allergic to sideline paint. You have to study the statistics for a long time to figure out how Auburn won the game. The difference in the game came on special teams, as it so often does in the opening weeks of the season.
Auburn freshman Tre Mason returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. And in the fourth quarter, after -- who else? -- tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen caught a 15-yard touchdown from Barrett Trotter that pulled Auburn within 38-35, kicker Chris Brooks executed a perfect onside kick that Tigers wide receiver Emory Blake soared to pluck out of the air.
"If you watch this game as the field spread it became very hard for us to defend," Utah State coach Gary Anderson said.
The Auburn defense, which starts one senior and seven sophomores, needs experience. It got plenty of it Saturday, mainly because the Tigers couldn't get off the field. The Aggies ground out four touchdown drives of 14 to 16 plays, traveling between 65 and 80 yards, lasting from 5:37 to 7:27. They held the ball for 37:41.
The Aggies didn't need to employ trickery. The only negative play the Aggies made in the first quarter was a reverse that, as Anderson pointed out, spread the field and allowed the Tigers' superior athleticism to assert itself. The rest of the time, Utah State needed only to execute its plays.
This was no mere teaching moment. "That was a teaching three-and-a-half hours," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. He looked as if the salt in his hair had made significant progress against the pepper.
"I was expecting us to play better than that," Roof said.
You stop disciplined, smart playmaking with disciplined, smart defense. The Tigers spent a lot of time out of position. When they got to the right place, they didn't wrap up tackles.
The Tigers' offense didn't make any overt mistakes. On the other hand, in the first half, Auburn didn't make much of anything, save a third-down slant from Trotter that Blake that turned into a 56-yard touchdown.
Trotter finished 17-of-23 for 261 yards and three touchdowns. But nearly every incompletion came when he missed an open receiver. Trotter hasn't started a game since high school in 2008. He settled down and completed 6-of-8 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in those last four minutes.
"You kind of get locked into game mode," Trotter said. "Once I got out there, I felt as comfortable as ever, and even more as the game went on."
Inexperience doesn't have to be an excuse. Last season, Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton took Cypress Creek High to the third round of the Texas 5A playoffs. Judging by his calm on the big stage, Texas high school football is as big a stage as they say it is. Keeton ran the offense effectively (21-30-0, 213 yards, one sack) and showed the ability to escape while staying in the pocket. Most important, he didn't turn the ball over.
"I love Chuckie Keeton," Anderson said. "I have loved Chuckie Keeton since I walked into his living room."
Utah State converted 10-of-17 third downs and three-of-three on fourth down, including a mind-numbing decision by Anderson to take a delay-of-game penalty on fourth-and-3 at the Auburn 5, only to then fake a field goal on fourth-and-8 at the Auburn 10. Tight end D.J. Tialavea made a diving catch at the 2 for the first down, which, of course, makes it a great call.
Two plays later, Robert Turbin scored his second 1-yard touchdown of the game to put Utah State ahead 38-28 with 3:38 to play.
"The biggest thing, now, is that we need to finish," Keeton said. "We played three-and-a-half quarters and we just couldn't get the last half of the fourth quarter, so all we need to do is just finish."
Auburn finished. Last season, the Tigers beat Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama after falling behind by at least two touchdowns. But that was last year, and this was Utah State, which went 4-8 last season. The Tigers open SEC play next Saturday against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, who embarrassed Memphis, 59-14, on Thursday night, loom in the distance like a tropical depression somewhere east of Haiti.
"Most of the mistakes were mental," Trotter said. "That's something that's got to be fixed one way or the other before next week."
As Roof walked off the field, he cupped the neck of sophomore corner Chris Davis.
"You'll do better, right?" Roof said softly.
"Got to," Davis replied.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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