Auburn, Ala.--It's hard to imagine an Auburn defense feeling like they were to blame for the Tigers' overtime loss to South Florida Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium. After all, all the defense did was hold the Bulls to 319 yards of total offense on 79 plays with 146 coming in the first quarter alone. Throw in terrible field position for the entire third quarter and playing without four starters and you have one of the best defensive efforts in a long time for an Auburn team but coordinator Will Muschamp said it wasn't good enough.
"We played hard but we didn't play well enough to win," Muschamp said. "We've got to create some turnovers on defense. We've got to create some momentum for our football team. We played well in the red area but there at the end we didn't make the play when we had to. They hit the one option (route) early in the game and got the pass interference on third and 10. I didn't think it was pass interference but they called it.
"We live with it and move on," he added. "They hit the option on us and then had the one drive in the third or fourth drive of the game. They converted a third and 10 when they made a real good throw when we had good coverage. The bottom line is we've got to create some turnovers. We didn't create any turnovers tonight and they had five. That's why they won the game. We've got to do that on defense."
Jonathan Wilhite gets called for pass interference early in Saturday's contest.
Despite playing with their backs to the wall for almost the entire night thanks to an offensive unit that couldn't get out of the starting blocks in the first quarter, the defense struggled early to find the rhythm of South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe and the Bull offense but once they did it was lights out until the very end. On the field for 10:22 in the third quarter after Auburn turned the ball over three times in the period, Auburn's defense held strong and willed the team into overtime with three huge stops.
In the overtime period Auburn's offense managed just two yards in three plays before freshman kicker Wes Byrum banged home his third field goal of the game to give the Tigers the lead. South Florida then made Auburn pay. After converting on fourth and inches from just outside the 15-yard line, Grothe hit Jessie Hester for the game winning touchdown in overtime.
"They threw a corner route and they hit it," Muschamp said. "They made a good throw and a good catch. They've got good skill players and a great quarterback. That kid is a battler. He's a tough kid. He made the throw when he had to and we didn't make the play. We just go back and try to get in a better situation."
Playing without starters Tray Blackmon and Aairon Savage for the entire game and adding both Jonathan Wilhite (hamstring) and Merrill Johnson (shoulder) to the injured list in the first half left the Tigers thin on defense. Needing someone to step up, the Tigers got a huge game from linebacker Chris Evans with 14 tackles while safety Eric Brock and defensive end Sen'Derrick Marks added 10 stops each.
"We were down four starters after we lost Merrill during the game," Muschamp said. "We lost Wilhite in the second series after he pulled his hamstring. We're a little bit thin but that's what we got. We've just got to rally what we've got and coach them up."
In the end it comes down to winning football games and Saturday night Auburn's formula of playing defense and winning the kicking game didn't pay off for a victory because of a minus five in the turnover department. Muschamp said that's something his guys have to improve if Auburn hopes to achieve its goals this season.
"They had five turnovers," Muschamp said of USF's defense. "We've got to create turnovers. We've got to create momentum and find a way to win the game. We didn't do that tonight. We can play much better, we can tackle much better. When we gave up plays it was because of tackling. We had people in the right spots we've just got to make plays. We're going to do that. We're going to work hard at it. Our guys are going to come together for a great game against Mississippi State."