Peyton Barber (above) dives into the end zone for the winning touchdown in overtime.
Auburn, Ala.--A big question about Auburn’s new starting quarterback was how he would perform when he had to produce to win a football game.
The good news for Jeremy Johnson and his team was that he came through with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Melvin Ray with 39 seconds left to set up overtime as his Tigers rallied to defeat Jacksonville State 27-20 in overtime in a win that was as easy as pulling teeth.
Auburn came into the contest a 41-point favorite with a 19-0 record vs. FCS (Division I-AA) opponents, but was fortunate to win a game in which it was out-played much of the day by the Gamecocks.
Auburn was out-gained 438-401 yards by the defending Ohio Valley Conference champions, who finished the day with 28 first downs to 23 for the Tigers.
On a cloudy day there weren’t many bright spots for the home team, but one was the performance of Peyton Barber. He carried the football 23 times for 125 yards, including a four-yarder in overtime to provide the winning margin. He also caught a key pass to set up his touchdown.
Senior linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, who was shaken up twice but returned to action both times, came through with a game-high 13 tackles with two sacks, including a big one in overtime when the game was on the line.
Johnson, who was 21-32 passing for 236 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, completed 10 of his passes for 76 yards to senior wideout Ricardo Louis, who said he had faith that Johnson would come through despite an up-and-down performance.
“I just know when the time is needed for him to do it, he is going to do it,” said Louis, who noted he talked to his teammates at halftime about the need to pick up their level of play against an opponent that was leading 10-6 at the break.
“I feel we are going to come with a better attitude next week,” Louis said of Auburn’s SEC opener at LSU. He added at “the beginning” he believes the Tigers took JSU lightly. “Once the game got going we realized they came to play,” he said.
Despite his team nearly suffering what would have been one of the most embarrassing losses in Auburn football history, Gus Malzahn was asked if his team should still be considered a contender to win the SEC championship.
“No doubt,” Auburn’s third-year head coach said. “We have to get better, I think everybody sees that, but that’s the name of the game and I told everybody that this team has a chance to improve each week and grow. We’ve got some growing up to do. There’s no doubt about it.
“We’re playing a lot of new guys who are touching the ball for the first time, and a lot of defensive guys on the field for the first time, so the key will be improving,” Malzahn said.
Commenting on his quarterback, the coach said, “We had a lot of opportunities and we fumbled. There were a lot of ups and downs, but he had bright eyes and he wanted to lead our team. That’s it. We faced major adversity and that will be good for later on.”
Melvin Ray goes high for a touchdown catch late in the game.
JSU coach John Grass said, “It is tough. It is hard. You’ve got a top five FBS team, in their house, you’ve played well enough to get them on the ropes, and you kind of let them off and lose to them in overtime--it’s tough.
“Our guys aren’t satisfied," Grass said. "It’s not a moral victory of how we played. We expected to win the game so it’s hard. It’s like any other loss. You’re not satisfied. We’ll go back and we’ll see a few plays we could have made and they could have made the difference for sure.
“We lost to a great team,” Grass said. “A lot of people, I think, will discredit them today. Being a Top Five, Top 10 FBS team, I feel like they’re every bit of that. That kind of discredits us, I think. They’re a great program. They’ve got a great football team. They made their share of mistakes, too. They’ll go back and look and correct some stuff and clean some stuff up. It’s hard to talk to the team after a loss like that. They don’t want to hear any moral victories for sure.”
Auburn scored first, but didn’t look particularly sharp doing it. The Tigers moved 68 yards on 15 plays before settling on a 27-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson with 3:06 left in the first quarter.
JSU matched that by moving 60 yards on 12 plays to tie the score on a 32-yard field goal by Connor Rouleau with 13:29 left in the second quarter.
Auburn regained the lead on the following possession on a 49-yard field goal from Carlson after the Tigers stalled after moving 43 yards on 10 plays.
Auburn’s lead didn’t last long as the Gamecocks moved the football 75 yards on 10 plays capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Eli Jenkins to Josh Barge to make the score 10-6 with 5:31 left before halftime. Barge caught 14 passes for 132 yards to lead all receivers on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn regained the lead with the only points of the third quarter, a 51-yard pass from Johnson to running back Roc Thomas, with 8:37 left on the clock.
JSU tied the game with a 26-yard field goal with 10:43 left in the fourth quarter on a 12-play, 74-yard drive. Following the second interception of the day thrown by Johnson, the Gamecocks took the lead by moving 56 yards on 11 plays as Troymaine Pope scored from five yards out with 5:38 to play.
Auburn was in really major trouble after its third turnover, a fumble by Thomas recovered by Randy Robinson at the JSU 13 with 3:06 to play. However, the defense forced a three-and-out and the Tigers got a big break with a punt that traveled just 17 yards.
Taking over at the JSU 21 with 2:01 and one timeout left, the Tigers scored five plays later on the pass to Ray in the back of the end zone with 39 seconds left to set up overtime.
The Tigers lost the toss and went first in extra time, starting with a nine-yard run at right end by freshman Kerryon Johnson. Barber rushed for two yards and a first down and then got one yard with Johnson being stopped for no gain.
On third down and nine Johnson hit a swing pass to Barber, who was tackled at the four-yard line. Malzahn said that the running back was the fourth read on the play
On the next down Barber powered up the middle for the touchdown. "The line parted like the Red Sea," the redshirt sophomore said.
JSU’s Pope gained two yards on first down from the 25-yard line and threw an incomplete pass before a pass interference call put the Gamecocks first and goal at the eight-yard line.
After two runs netted three yards, quarterback Eli Jenkins was sacked for a 16-yard loss by McKinzy. On fourth down his pass into the end zone fell incomplete and a sellout crowd of 87,451 breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Play of the Game: Melvin Ray leaped high for the game-tying touchdown catch to complete a “stop-and-go” route on a pass zipped into the back of the end zone that Ray had to leap to catch.
Worth Noting, Part 1: Cornerback Blake Countess was ejected from the game on the final possession of the second quarter when he was called for targetting when tackling the JSU quarterback, a highly questionable call that surprisingly was upheld by replay official Mike McGinnis.
Worth Noting, Part 2: A trio of starters were held out of the game due to injuries. Tray Matthews was replaced in the lineup by Nick Ruffin and Carl Lawson was replaced by Raashed Kennion. On offense right tackle Avery Young was dressed out, but didn’t play. Braden Smith moved from right guard to right tackle and Devonte Danzey started at guard.