Whether or not the Tigers did get better is a subject worthy of debate, but there were signs that some of Auburn's freshmen are getting better. In fact, the biggest play of the night came by newcomer Jermaine Whitehead, whose 25-yard interception return for a touchdown sparked a 20-0 Auburn run in the third quarter to put the game away after leading just 10-6 at halftime.
"I am a football player and we live for those types of plays," said Whitehead, whose playing is increasing weekly as he plays nickel back when the Tigers line up with two linebackers instead of three.
Chizik had praise for the freshman from Greenwood, Miss., and other young players like Brandon Fulse, who started at H-back in place of Philip Lutzenkirchen, who was held out of action after being hurt a week earlier. The coach also had praise for redshirt freshman end LaDarius Owens, who saw a significant amount of playing time with Dee Ford out with an injury.
Offensively, the Tigers were out of sync much of the evening. They gained just 315 total yards and finished with 16 first downs. The offense didn't always capitalize on excellent field position as the Tigers improved to 3-1 while FAU dropped to 0-3.
"Offensively, as we all know, we struggled," Chizik said. "We have got to get some things corrected there and that was from the opening play on really. We never got any kind of rhythm."
Defensively, Auburn allowed the visiting Owls 307 yards and 20 first downs. That is certainly an improvement statistically from games one, two and three for the Tigers, however, those numbers came against an opponent that came into the contest averaging an anemic 92.5 yards in its losses to Florida and Michigan State.
"The bottom line is there are some things I think we can build on defensively," Chizik said. "Obviously, three interceptions is a big thing for us and being able to return one for a score and set up some field position situations for us was good. I think there was some improvement there. We didn't play like we wanted to play the whole night. We certainly showed a lot of improvement--in my opinion."
Chizik had praise for the kicking game, which featured three field goals by Cody Parkey and excellent coverage of kickoffs and punts.
After losing for the first time since 2009 last week at Clemson, Chizik said he was "very happy to win the game" even though he admitted his Tigers have plenty of work to do to improve as they head back in to SEC play next week.
Chizik's counterpart, 77-year-old Howard Schellenberger, didn't seem particularly disappointed about the way his team played as he watched the action from the press box instead of the sideline. "I was pleasantly surprised we had a very competitive game on the stat scoreboard," he noted.
"There was a great deal of happiness in the locker room," Schnellenberger added. "They feel they have done something we were looking for. This game, following the first two blowout games, gives us a reason to have self confidence that when we play in our conference we will have a reasonable chance to win."
FAU won the toss and deferred, kicking a short, high ball that Fulse made a fair catch on at the Auburn 39. On the first play from scrimmage, Barrett Trotter underthrew a pass with an open receiver behind the secondary and it was picked off and returned to the Auburn 35.
The Owls made one first down before settling for a 39-yard field goal with 11:36 left in the first quarter. It was just the second scoring play of the season for FAU.
It took the Tigers a little more than four minutes to gain the lead. After Fulse fumbled a short kickoff that the Tigers recovered, Auburn moved 60 yards on 11 plays. The score came on a perfectly thrown third down pass of 10 yards to wide receiver Emory Blake, who also got the drive jump-started by converting a third and long on a short pass and run.
Auburn forced a three-and-out after the kickoff and scored on its second possession, settling for a 41-yard field goal by Parkey with 1:50 left in the quarter. On the previous play Blake just missed making what would have been an acrobatic catch in the end zone. AU's drive covered 46 yards on 10 plays with the biggest one a 15-yard gainer by freshman Kiehl Frazier running the wildcat.
Like they did in the opening quarter, the visitors scored first in the second period with a field goal, this one from 43 yards out with 10:10 left on the clock. The Owls kept the ball for 13 plays and drove 51 yards.
With Auburn leading 10-6 neither team seriously threatened to score. Late in the half the Tigers had a chance to get into scoring range after linebacker Jake Holland intercepted a pass thrown over the middle giving the Tigers possession at the FAU 49 with 2:20 on the clock.
On third and 17 Trotter couldn't find a receiver and scrambled for 15 yards. On fourth down he rolled out right and could have run for the first down, but threw a pass behind Blake the junior couldn' handle giving the Owls the football with 51 seconds left before intermission.
At the break the Tigers had just 155 yards of total offense, two more than a FAU team that came into the contest averaging 92.5 yards per game. That prompted Trotter to make a halftime talk to the team about the need to step it up.
"Barrett gave us a speech about how we needed to go out there and play hard," freshman center Reese Dismukes said. "I know I played better in the second half and I think we did as an offensive line. We went out there with an edge we didn't start the game with."
The second half couldn't have begun much better for the home team. Parkey's kickoff was a touchback and three plays later freshman Whitehead, who opened the second half starting as a nickel back, perfectly read FAU quarterback Graham Wilbert's swing pass, broke on the ball and made the pick. He raced 25 yards for a touchdown giving the Tigers a 17-6 lead at the 13:34 mark of the third quarter.
Ladarious Owens pressures FAU's quarterback.
Auburn's defense didn't look nearly as good on the second FAU possession of the second half. The Owls quickly drove into Auburn territory, but stalled at the 34 when a pass fell incomplete on fourth and seven with Daren Bates pressuring the quarterback.
The offense scored the first time it got the ball in the third quarter. Onterio McCalebb caught a third down swing pass in the flat. He got a good block from A.J. Greene and hit the jets. After that it didn't take the junior long to get into the end zone to make the score 24-6.
"When I saw open space I knew I had to run as fast as I?could and get to the end zone," said McCalebb, who was shaken up with a big hit later in the game. However, in the locker room after the game he said he is okay. "I wasn't okay right after it happened though," he said.
Auburn's next points came courtesy of the defense. FAU tried to hit a deep ball immediately after the Auburn touchdown, but safety Neiko Thorpe had the coverage, made a sack and then raced 46 yards to the 19.
Two plays later the Tigers just missed scoring on a slightly underthrown pass from Frazier to Blake, who tried to make a diving catch in the end zone. Auburn had to settle for a 31-yard field goal.
Auburn's next possession also ended with a field goal by Parkey, this one from 41 yards out, as Auburn moved the ball 41 yards on 11 plays to go ahead 30-6 with two seconds left in the third quarter.
Florida Atlantic scored its first touchdown of the season on the next possession. A 11-play drive cut Auburn's lead as the Owls scored on a screen pass play from 12 yards out to Graham Wilbert. That TD came against the Auburn reserves and forced the Tigers to put their front-liners back on the field to finish the fourth quarter.
The Owls trimmed the lead to 30-14 with 9:26 to play by adding a two-point conversion on a pass from Wilbert to Nexon Dorvilus. Neither team scored the rest of the night.
The Tigers had one more scoring opportunity, but didn't make a 47-yard field goal try, the first miss for Parkey after six makes to start the season.
Emory Blake runs after making a catch vs. FAU.
Trotter hit 16-28 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and one interception on a night when his pass protection was spotty. Michael Dyer led the Tigers in rushing with 68 yards on 14 carries. Blake led the receivers with five catches for 78 yards.
Afred Morris rushed for 85 yards on 15 carries for FAU, which finished the game with 108 yards on the ground.
The Tigers return to action with a road game next Saturday at South Carolina to face the unbeaten Gamecocks.