"I am proud of our team," Coach Tommy Tuberville said. "It wasn't pretty. We gutted it out. That was guts all of the way."
Until senior quarterback Brandon Cox's passing led the Tigers on a do-or-die game-winning drive to put AU ahead 16-13 with 2:01 left, Auburn's offense struggled against a quick and aggressive KSU defense that pounded Cox at every opportunity and limited the Auburn rushing attack to 62 net yards on 37 carries.
"The execution wasn't very good," Tuberville said as his offensive line with four new starters had an uneven performance. "Offensively, we have got a lot of work to do, but again they came here to stop the run and make us throw the ball down the field and we didn't execute very well."
The Tigers netted just 316 total yards as Cox was 17-30 for 229 yards with one interception and two touchdowns. It was the Auburn defense, which allowed just 291 yards that kept the Tigers in striking range.
Tuberville said he liked the toughness his fifth-year senior QB showed "He is a tough young man. He took a beating. They were bringing five, six, seven. They obviously looked at Nebraska's game plan against us and they brought the house. They had everybody inside, and they weren't letting us run the football.
"They were running their safeties inside out to try to make plays. Heck, their safeties were making plays in the backfield on running plays. We just couldn't get Brandon enough time to get the ball deep down the field enough times. When it all counted, it was good to see all of them step up and give him enough time to get it up down the field and make enough plays and score that touchdown."
Auburn added an insurance touchdown less than a minute after Cox's three-yard TD toss to tight end Gabe McKenzie when defensive end Antonio Coleman picked up a fumble by QB Josh Freeman, who was nailed by Quentin Groves.
"We knew the defense was going to have to win this game and we stepped up and made the big plays when we had to," he says. "We played a lot of people on defense. I think that helped us win this game."
Coleman's 34-yard fumble return put the Tigers ahead 23-13 with 1:11 to play. The defense then sealed the victory with an interception by linebacker Chris Evans, who was filling in for Tray Blackmon, who missed the second half with an ankle injury.
The Tigers celebrate Gabe McKenzei's touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
After winning the toss, Kansas State took the opening possession 61 yards on 13 plays before settling for a 20-yard field goal by Brooks Rossman with 10:31 left in the opening quarter. QB Josh Freeman, throwing from the shotgun, did the damage by hitting short crossing routes and other short passes.
The Tigers didn't accomplish much offensively until late in the first quarter when Brandon Cox and Rod Smith hooked up on a 55-yard pass play.
Auburn converted a fourth down and one on a three-yard Ben Tate run up the middle to the six to keep the drive alive. Originally the Tigers were penalized for delay of game after a timeout, but the officiating crew gave the Tigers only 15 seconds to run the play instead of 25 required after a called timeout so the Tigers got a do-over following a protest by Tuberville.
However, it didn't matter as the Tigers stalled when a third down pass to Smith in the end zone was incomplete. Wes Byrum hit his first college field goal, a 20-yarder, to tie the game at 3-3 with 14:07 left in the second quarter to cap a drive that covered 69 yards in nine plays.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Tigers scored on their next possession. Holding the ball for 11 plays, the Tigers moved into scoring position on the passing of Cox, but had to settle for a 40-yard Byrum field goal after the QB was sacked for a nine-yard loss. The freshman's field goal gave the Tigers a 6-3 lead with 6:29 left in the first half.
Although there was a lot action the rest of the second quarter, including an interception thrown by each team, neither side scored and the Tigers took their three-point lead into the dressing room after Tray Blackmon ended the period with a 49-yard interception return on the last play of the period. Blackmon was injured on the play and did not see action the rest of the night.
Kansas State took the lead early in the third quarter on a trick play, a 21-yard throwback pass to Leon Patton from Jordy Nelson to put the Wildcats ahead 10-6. K-State stretched the lead to 13-6 with a 40-yard field goal by Rossman with 7:31 left in the third quarter.
A 57-yard Robert Dunn punt return set up a 31-yard field goal by Auburn's Byrum, cutting the gap to 13-9 with 1:46 left in the third quarter.
That set the stage for Auburn's fourth quarter rally.
Commenting on Auburn's defense finally getting significant pressure on KSU quarterback Freeman in the fourth quarter, Tuberville said, "Their quarterback got tired and was kind of limping around. He looked like he was trying to cramp up in the middle of the third quarter. We talked to our defensive front about turning it up a notch and reaching back to that Kevin Yoxall work ethic that he put them through all summer.
"We actually got stronger on defense as we went along," Tuberville said. "We got tired but when we needed to make plays, we were coming off the corner up the middle. Antonio Coleman looked like he ran a 4.5 40 down the field running and scoring the touchdown.
"Again winning games are about defense," Tuberville said. "We are not going to win a lot of games offensively. Not a lot of teams in our conference are. We have to play good defense and have the kicking game to give yourself a chance. Then, you have to be solid on offense. We have a lot of work to do on offense. We have to make sure that we have the right combination of people in the offensive line."
The Tigers return to action next Saturday night with a home game vs. South Florida.