Columbia, S.C.--Coming into Thursday night's contest against South Carolina, the general consensus was that Auburn's defense would carry the Tigers to victory and allow the offense to continue easing into the season. The game was a far cry from that conventional wisdom though as an improbable third quarter and solid play by Auburn in the passing game kept the Tigers perfect despite a rough night from the defense.
Up just 14-10 at the half over a scrappy South Carolina club, Auburn took control of the game in the third quarter thanks to a long drive by the offense and some ingenuity from the head coach. Getting the ball to open the half, Auburn drove 85 yards in 17 plays before a John Vaughn field goal pushed the lead to seven. Sensing some momentum, Tommy Tuberville decided an onside kick was in order.
The recovery and ensuing drive finished out the entire quarter before a Kenny Irons one-yard run on fourth down put the Tigers up 24-10 just eight seconds into the fourth quarter. Offensive coordinator Al Borges says he's never been a part of a quarter of football like that and it's a very good thing the Tigers had one Thursday night.
"I have never been a part of a game where a team didn't even get to touch the ball in the third quarter," Borges says. "We had something to make up for because we only had three possessions in the first half if you discount the last one where we were just running the clock out. Turnabout is fair play. We held onto it the second half and they held onto it the first half."
Quarterback Brandon Cox had a solid night for the Auburn offense in the win.
Unfortunately for Auburn the offense didn't hold on to the ball when it mattered most. Up by a touchdown and with the ball first and 10 at its own 22-yard line and 8:25 left in the game, the Tigers went three and out on offense to put an already struggling defense back on the field. Even though the defense came up with a play to win the game, Borges says that it should have never come to that.
"We've got to get some first downs there at the end," Borges says. "I thought we had done a good job of converting and moving the ball and then we get down in the crucial situation with four minutes to go, we've got to get a first down there. Of the whole night that was probably the most disappointing thing, not being able to get at least one first down in that four-minute situation. The third down call was a bad call by me. We should have had a lead blocker in the backfield when they stopped us."
All season Borges and the offense have emphasized converting third downs. Thursday night they again struggled with just four of 10 conversions, but it was the four that made the difference on this night. On Auburn's third quarter drive Cox completed a pass on third and 11 to Robert Dunn for 12 yards and a first down. Following the onside kick Cox again came through on third down with a 25-yard strike to Courtney Taylor on third and 21. Auburn eventually scored what proved to be the winning touchdown and Borges says the conversions were the reason why.
"We have really emphasized improvement on third downs," Borges says. "We started so slow at the beginning of the season. It has been a point of emphasis. He's a kid that if you get him protected has the ability to get the ball from point A to point B pretty well."
Something that helped Cox and the passing game Thursday night was the emergence of redshirt freshman Tommy Trott. With just one catch coming into the game, the Montgomery native caught three passes for 31 yards and his first touchdown. Borges says it was good to see number five get some touches for a change.
"We finally got him involved," Borges says. "Tommy had not really contributed in our passing game until tonight. We knew what he was capable of and hopefully he will build on this a little bit. I think he's got some confidence now and we're going to continue to tap that."
In the end the game was a victory for Auburn and improves them to 5-0 on the season. Offensively Borges says the unit still has a great deal of work to do if they hope to reach their goals this season. While the numbers weren't overwhelming against the Gamecocks, 307 yards and 24 points, Borges says his team competed Thursday night and that's a step forward.
"I'm disappointed that we weren't able to score more points, but I think we were three and out only twice," Borges says. "Every other time we touched the ball we scored. They weren't all touchdowns but for the most part the kids responded pretty well, particularly when the crowd got into the game and the momentum seemed to shift. I think our guys came out in the third quarter and took the crowd out of the game."