Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson carved up the Tiger secondary like a jack-o-lantern and the result was way too scary for comfort for the sellout crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the Tigers improved to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the SEC. South Carolina dropped to 4-4 overall and 2-4 in the league.
After the final play, an interception in the end zone by Jonathan Jones to preserve the victory, Auburn finished the game with 551 yards of total offense, including 395 on the ground.
The Gamecocks passed for 416 yards and five touchdowns, but Thompson was intercepted twice by Jones and once by linebacker Cassanova McKinzy. That proved to be the winning margin on a night USC coach Steve Spurrier gambled early and often and was incredibly successful with the strategy by converting five of the six tries.
Cassanova McKinzy intercepts a pass for the Tigers.
“We knew we were going to get their best effort,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “They had an off-week and then played a I-AA team. We felt like they were a Top 10 preseason team for a reason. They beat a good Georgia team and beat another, East Carolina, so they are very good team.
“Their coach is one of the better coaches to ever walk the sideline,” Malahn said of Spurrier. “I think everybody saw that tonight with the fourth down calls and the onside kick. They did a lot of good things, but at the end of the day our guys found a way to win.
“Our defense didn’t play its best, but at the very end they came through,” the coach added.
Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for 167 yards and one touchdown for the Tigers. Ricardo Louis rushed for 102 yards and scored from 75 yards out on three carries. Nick Marshall carried the ball 10 times for 89 yards and three touchdowns while completing 12-14 passes for 139 yards and one score. He also caught a pass for 17 yards from Jonathan Wallace.
Ricardo Louis races to the end zone for a touchdown.
Junior linebacker Kris Frost led the Auburn defense with 11 solo tackles and three assists.
“They exploited us on a few coverages and we weren’t in the right spot a few times,” said Frost, who added, “but it is nothing we can’t fix.”
Frost said the Gamecocks came out with a do-or-die attitude by going on fourth downs, even deep in their own territory. “I feel like they didn’t feel like they could stop our offense so I feel like that played a big part in it,” he said of USC's high-risk strategy.
Neither team led by more than a touchdown. Auburn took the lead for good with 11:22 remaining on a nine-yard keeper by Marshall to cap a drive that covered 80 yards on just six plays after an interception in the end zone by Jones.
On the next South Carolina possession the visitors kept the ball for 16 plays before stalling at the 19-yard line when the Gamecocks had their only fourth down failure when they had to get 14 yards to keep the drive alive and threw an incomplete pass into the end zone.
Auburn got the ball back with 5:28 left and managed to make two first downs, but had to punt the ball back to the Gamecocks, who took over at their 15 with 1:08 and no timeouts left. With the help of a 15-yard personal foul hands to the face penalty they got to the Auburn 41-yard line for a final pass into the end zone that was picked off by Jones.
South Carolina won the toss, took the ball and scored on the opening possession, moving 75 yards on seven plays. The touchdown came on a 32-yard pass from Thompson to Shaq Roland, who made the catch on the goal over the head of cornerback Jones.
The Gamecocks had the second scoring threat, but an interception by Cassanova McKinzy at the Auburn eight-yard line stopped the drive.
A speed sweep by Ricardo Louis for 19 yards got the Tigers away from the goal line. On the 11th play of the possession, on third and goal at the three, Marshall found tight end Brandon Fulse open in the flat for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
A gamble by the Gamecocks led to the second touchdown for the visitors. On fourth and two at the USC 33, Thompson pitched the football to Mike Davis for a 16-yard gain at left end. That set up a 16-yard scoring pass to Pharoh Cooper, who got behind Nick Ruffin in the south end zone to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive.
The Tigers responded with an even longer drive, moving 93 yards on 10 plays with most of the yardage on running plays. Artis-Payne scored from a yard out at left guard with 8:19 left in the half to tie the game at 14-14.
After the Auburn defense forced its first punt of the game, Quan Bray lost control of the ball at the Auburn 42-yard line. Another mistake, a facemask penalty on Angelo Blackson to keep the possession alive, set up a 27-yard wheel route pass to Davis, who raced by Justin Garrett on the way to the end zone.
Auburn responded again, this time moving 75 yards on seven plays. Marshall scored from 37 yards out on a keeper to make the score 21-21 with 2:35 left in the half, ending the scoring in the period.
Halftime Numbers: Auburn out-rushed the Gamecocks 203 yards to 56 with the Tigers running the ball 25 to 15 for the Gamecocks. South Carolina had a big edge in passing yards with 211 as they hit 13-20 while Auburn hit 7-9 for 74 yards.Artis-Payne rushed for 86 yards on 12 plays in the first half while Marshall gained 66 on seven carries.
The Tigers took their first lead on the opening possession of the third quarter by driving 88 yards on 12 plays. On second and goal at the five, Marshall faked a handoff to Corey Grant on a sweep and then ran up the middle for a touchdown to put the Tigers up 28-21 at the 9:30 mark.
Less than two minutes later the game was tied as the Gamecocks moved the ball 72 yards on five plays. Thompson hit Cooper on a short slant route and he raced past Robenson Therezie for a touchdown from 51 yards out.
The Tigers responded with a one-play possession as Louis raced around left end from 75 yards out to put the Tigers up 35-28. However, the Gamecocks drove the ball 75 yards to tie the game on a 10-yard pass to Nick Jones with 2:20 left in the third quarter, setting the stage for a dramatic fourth period that featured just the one touchdown by the Tigers.
Commenting on his strategy of trying to convert fourth downs, Spurrier said, “We knew we had to try and stay on the field. We almost did it, but we couldn’t quite do it because we messed up. We messed up in the red zone a couple of times or else we had a chance. We got the onside kick, so we stole that possession right there, and that gave us a fighting chance. We were only two-for-five in red zone chances, and that’s the worst we have been all year. That’s why we got beat.”
Malzahn improved his record in home games to 13-0 with the victory as the Tigers improved to 10-1-1 all-time in games vs. the Gamecocks.
Up next for Auburn is a 6 p.m. road game next Saturday at Ole Miss.