The inability of the Auburn defense to make a good play on third down was the biggest of many problems Coach Gene Chizik's Tigers could not overcome on Saturday. Clemson's offense got on a roll starting in the second quarter by converting 10 consecutive third down plays.
That enabled the home team to overcome a two-touchdown deficit as the ACC team embarrassed an Auburn defense that surrendered 624 total yards on 92 plays. It was the most yardage given up by the Tigers in a game since allowing 625 to Florida in 1996.
The third down carnage resulted in Auburn giving up 32 first downs and 386 passing yards. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 30-42 passes for 386 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
Auburn's run defense struggled, too, as the home team gained 238 yards on 50 carries.
"I have to start out by giving a lot of credit to Clemson," said Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, who witnessed the end of his team's 17-game winning streak that dated back to 2009 as well as Auburn's 14-game winning streak against Clemson, a team that had not beaten Auburn since 1951.
"I feel like they out-played us pretty much from the second quarter all the way through the rest of the football game," Chizik said. "They have got good players and good coaches, and they have got a very good football team so my hat is off to them and their ability to execute pretty much all day long."
Chizik added, "It was very glaring that defensively we have a lot of work to do. It was very glaring that offensively we can't turn the ball over going into the red zone and we have to sustain some more drives.
"Time of possession is becoming an issue with our team, certainly with the number of plays we are playing defensively," said Chizik, whose team held the ball for 23:45 compared to 36:15 for Clemson. "That is really a combination of the inability to convert on third down for ourselves and the inability to get off the field third down defensively."
Chizik said the problems on defense include not being able to pressure the opposing quarterback and not reacting properly to passes when the football is in the air.
As poorly as Auburn played for much of the game, the Tigers were still in the game late trailing 38-24 after a field goal by Clemson with 11:48 left. A 41-yard pass play from Barrett Trotter to DeAngelo Benton started a drive on which the Tigers moved to a first and goal at the Clemson eight-yard line. However, an illegal procedure penalty on Brandon Mosley pushed the Tigers back to the 13 and on the next play Trotter was intercepted at the five-yard line.
Auburn's defense then let Clemson off the goal line and that was end of the line for Chizik's Tigers on Saturday and the winning streak that began in the Outback Bowl to close the 2009 season.
"We are nowhere we need to be," the Auburn coach said of his team, which fell to 2-1 with the loss while Clemson improved to 3-0. He added, "I am ready to evaluate everything and look at some things. Again, I have confidence in every coach on my staff. Everyone of our coaches--special teams, offense, defense--we are all going to have to do our best job of coaching. Period."
One of the few bright spots for the Tigers was Michael Dyer's 16 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns, but that was no consolation for the sophomore. "That is not what it is about," he said. "It is about winning the game."
Auburn won the kickoff and took the football. The Tigers couldn't overcome an illegal procedure penalty and punted at midfield.
Michael Dyer scores the first touchdown of the game.
After another three-and-out for the Clemson offense, Auburn took over at its 46-yard line and took just six plays to score.
The touchdown came on a third down and 19 after the Tigers were penalized for holding. Trotter's perfectly thrown 36-yard pass to Emory Blake gave the junior a sixth consecutive game with a TD reception.
A redshirt freshman mistake by Auburn's Trovon Reed changed the momentum after the Auburn defense forced a punt by Clemson. Reed tried to return a 56-yard punt out of the end zone and backed his team up to the four-yard line.
Auburn managed to get off the goal line with the help of an eight-yard run by McCalebb, but Auburn had to punt the football and Clemson got the football with good field position at its 40-yard line.
Auburn responded with a drive that covered 90 yards on 16 plays. On third down and goal from the one-yard line, Dyer lined up as the wildcat quarterback and bulled into the end zone from there. Auburn led 21-7, but the final 8:54 of the half was dominated by Clemson.
Auburn's defensive struggles on third down from games one and two returned and enabled Clemson to drive 81 yards on 12 plays to score on a six-yard pass from Boyd to Dwayne Allen to cut the gap to 21-14.
Clemson put together another long drive, this one 75 yards on eight plays, to tie the game at 21-21 with 1:11 to play in the half.
At intermission Auburn had gained 285 yards on 42 plays with 157 coming on 28 rushes. Clemson had gained 235 on 40 carries with 171 through the air. A key stat for Clemson was converting 6-9 third downs prior to intermission.
Auburn's third down defensive woes intensified on the first third down situation in the second half. On third and six a short pass to freshman receiver Sammie Watkins, who ran untouched through the Auburn secondary for 65 yards, put Clemson on top 28-21.
With Auburn at its 18 the Tigers quickly moved into Clemson territory on a 45-yard run at right end by Dyer. AU moved deeper into Clemson territory, but the drive stalled and the Tigers cut the gap to 28-24 on a 38-yard field goal by Cody Parkey.
On the next possession Clemson went to work on Auburn's defense again moving 80 yards after a Parkey kickoff out of the end zone.
Not surprisingly, the touchdown came on a third down play, this one with nine to go. From the Auburn 19 the touchdown play was way too easy as wide receiver Sammy Watkins was uncovered on a short pass over the middle to make the score 35-24 with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
Clemson drove 62 yards on eight plays to make the score 38-24 with just under 12 minutes to play. The stage was set for Auburn to come through with another comeback, but the Tigers were unable to rise to the occasion.
For Clemson it was its third consecutive comeback victories. "We knew Auburn was going to be a tough out," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We had the Sun Belt championships, then the Southern Conference champions and then the national champions and we're 3-0," he said.
Auburn returns to action with a home game next Saturday as Florida Atlantic visits Jordan-Hare Stadium.