It was certainly a good one more Auburn, however, the Commodore faithful were probably not impressed. Tuberville's sentiments might have been different if it the gamble been successful, but linebacker Dontarrious Thomas stuffed Commodore holder Justin Purkey to preserve a 24-21 victory Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium.
"We talked about it," Tuberville said. "One reason I called the timeouts was to freeze him and the other one was to make sure we understood about the fake field goal. We blocked in the middle and we didn't rush the outside guys which helped. If you rush the outside guys, normally what happens is you force the guy to pitch it and they run around the outside of you. The coaches did a good job of scheming it."
Thomas led the AU defense with nine tackles, but the Tigers got an even bigger boost on defense from Karlos Dansby. The six-foot-three whip linebacker made his first collegiate start a memorable evening as he registered eight tackles, made his first collegiate interception and broke up a crucial third down pass in Commodores' final drive of the game. He also made a shoe-string tackle on Vanderbilt running back Lew Thomas on the same drive that likely saved a touchdown.
"Coach (John) Lovett put us in great position to make plays and we made some plays," Dansby said. "(The win) was real important because now we're the hunted. Now we're on top. Everybody is coming for us, shooting for us. We just have to stay on top and maintain it."
The game ended up being a tale of two halves as both teams looked sluggish in the first half which ended with Auburn leading 7-0. The Tigers and Commodores were able to pick up the pace offensively in the second half.
The Tigers did their damage through the air in the second half as Jason Campbell threw for 164 of his career-high 247 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to Robert Johnson. The Commodores did the opposite as Lew Thomas gained 141 of his 173 rushing yards in the half.
"I told the team we have to put a smile on our face," Tuberville said. "There were a lot of long faces in (the locker room) after a win and you never take winning lightly. This team grew up a little bit. It's probably better, after it's over with, to win like this, than win by two or three touchdowns."
Auburn looked both sloppy and brilliant on its first possession of the game. Campbell was off target on a pitch play to Casinious Moore, but recovered the loose ball for an eight-yard loss on the second play from scrimmage. The next play, a third and 14 from the AU 15, Campbell couldn't find an open receiver and took off on a 34-yard scramble to the Tigers' 49. Freshman Carnell Williams made his first action of the game count as he outraced the VU defense for a 51-yard touchdown run on a play beautifully blocked by the left side of the Tiger offensive front.
Williams' touchdown would be the only points of the half for either team as the Tigers' offense stalled after the long touchdown run. The Vanderbilt offense never got going. A stingy Auburn defense and numerous dropped passes by Commodore receivers kept the home team off the scoreboard for the first two quarters. The lone highlight for the ‘Dores in the first half was when quarterback Greg Zolman hit wide receiver Chris Young on a 19-yard reception. The completion put Zolman atop the VU career-passing yardage list. He hit just one of his last 11 passes in the first half after completing seven of his first 10.
Auburn had an opportunity to extend its lead after Horace Willis recovered a fumbled-punt by VU's Ronald Hatcher on the ‘Dores 25-yard line. (Willis had carried the ball into the end zone, but in college football a fumbled punt catch cannot be returned.) However, two plays later Campbell and Moore had another shaky pitch play, but this one cost the Tigers as Vandy recovered the loose ball.
The AU defense allowed just 102 first half yards and the Commodores contributed to their own problems by dropping several passes that could have been completed for big yardage. Both teams also missed field goal attempts in the first half as Auburn's Damon Duval was wide right on a 53-yarder and Vanderbilt's Jimmy Stover was wide left on a 44-yarder.
Vanderbilt's offense woke up in the second half led by Thomas, who had 52 yards rushing on the Commodores' 13-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter. Thomas' four-yard touchdown run capped off a drive where he converted two fourth downs. The first came on a fake punt where he took the direct snap and rushed for 25 yards. The second was on a fourth and one from AU five-yard line. Thomas took the next play in for a touchdown.
Auburn answered quickly as its opening drive of the half looked similar to its first of the game as Campbell fumbled on the opening play from scrimmage, but freshman center Danny Lindsey recovered for a two-yard loss. Junior Marcel Willis then turned a five-yard out pass into a 47-yard gain. Campbell then connected with Johnson on his 35-yard touchdown catch and Auburn retook the lead at 14-7. Johnson had four catches for 56 yards in the contest.
After the Tigers forced VU to punt, freshman Joe Walkins bobbled the return for Auburn and Vandy recovered on the AU 21-yard line. The Commodores capitalized on this turnover just two plays later and tied the game at 14. Thomas went in from two yards out after Zolman connected with Stricker for a 19-yard reception on the previous play.
A big hustle play by freshman Carlos Rogers pinned the ‘Dores on their own two-yard line after a 51-yard punt by Duval nearlyl trickled into the end zone. The Tigers quickly took advantage as DeMarco McNeil stopped Thomas for a one-yard loss on the first play. Reggie Torbor batted down a Zolman pass on second down, then Dansby picked off Zolman's third-down pass and returned it 22 yards to the VU one-yard line. Williams scored his second rushing touchdown of the game on AU's first play, leaping across the goal line from one-yard out and landing on his helmet. The true freshman carried the ball six times for 56 yards and the two scores.
However, once again, Vandy had an answer to an Auburn score as Zolman marched the Commodores down the field on a nine-play, 83-yard drive that he capped with an alleged four-yard touchdown pass to Stricker that the officials had to confer on before ruling that the catch was good. "Our players said he did not have control," Tuberville said of the call that was obviously wrong. "We'll just have to wait and look at the film. I hope they caught it since they gave it to them. You just don't want the officials to get involved in a game like this, this close in a conference game."
Receiver Tim Carter took the kickoff back 39 yards and 15 yards were added after a late hit by a Commodore player on the home team's sideline. The penalty gave the Tigers the ball on Vandy's 43-yard line and Auburn quickly moved into scoring position before the drive was halted at the Commodore nine. On a fourth down and inches to go, Moore was stuffed as he tried to leap over the Vandy d
The Commodores did little with their momentum gain from the turnover on downs and were forced to punt after a three-and-out. Walkins fielded this Joe Webb punt cleanly, but was hammered for a two-yard loss. AU started on its own 43-yard line. After the Tigers moved the ball down to the VU 30-yard line, three quick penalties moved it back to the AU 47-yard line and set up a big third-and-28 for AU. Moore then took a short dump-off pass from Campbell and made something out of it by gaining 21 yards to the VU 32-yard line. It set up a 49-yard field goal attempt, which Duval sent through the uprights with plenty of distance to spare to give AU a 24-21 lead with 2:58 remaining.
Kicking into a stiff wind on his first-half attempt, Duval said he had the confidence in his leg to make the kick and that confidence carried over into his game-winning kick. "When I hit the ball, I knew I hit it well," he said. "But unfortunately it stayed on the hash, but carrying over to the next kick, the 49-yarder, I didn't have the thought in the back of mind, whether I have the leg right now to make this? I knew I had the leg to make it. It was from the left hash and we had to make sure we lined it up right to follow through straight."
Vanderbilt had 2:58 to answer the Tigers' latest score and it looked like the Commodores were well on their way to doing so when Stover lined up for what would have been a game-tying 44-yard field goal attempt. However, Purkey, the holder, took the snap and ran to left side of the line having Stover as his option man, but AU's Thomas rushed him and made the tackle for a two-yard loss.
With the victory, the Tigers moved to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in SEC play, which puts them at the top of the Western Division. Auburn returns to Jordan-Hare Stadium for three straight home games with the first being Saturday against Mississippi State at 6 p.m.