AUBURN, Ala. — The Auburn Tigers didn’t pull off another Kick-Six or Immaculate Deflection, but they still seem to have a knack for dramatic victories.
The fourth-ranked Tigers, who lived on the edge much of last season, survived a Hail Mary pass on the last play to hold on for a wild 42-35 victory against South Carolina Saturday night. It was a familiar feeling for Auburn, which now travels to No.
It was also the culmination of a game when the Tigers (6-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) made costly penalties, gave up five fourth-down conversions and an onside kick and somehow managed to escape with their championship hopes intact.
“We found a way to win games late last year and we still feel that same way about this team,” Auburn tailback Cameron Artis-Payne said. “We feel like if it’s tight in the fourth quarter we will find a way to win.”
The Tigers couldn’t muster a fourth-quarter comeback in a 38-23 road loss to No. 1 Mississippi State but had converted a key third-and-9 play late to help preserve a 20-14 victory at No. 11 Kansas State on Sept. 18.
Last season, Auburn’s run to the national title game included late defensive stands, game-winning drives and unforgettable touchdown plays against Alabama (Kick-Six) and Georgia (Immaculate Deflection).
This one wasn’t over until Jonathan Jones made his second fourth-quarter interception in the end zone on Dylan Thompson’s Hail Mary. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said afterward he intended to go for two points and the victory if the play worked.
The SEC confirmed Sunday that Auburn should have been penalized for having two players with the same jersey number on the field for the play. That would have given South Carolina (4-4, 2-4) a chance to try it again from Auburn’s 36 if officials had caught it.
They didn’t, and the result was a big stop for a defense that gave up 535 yards and struggled to get off the field.
“It was really important, something that we’ve been doing for a long time, showing up when we really needed to most,” said Auburn linebacker Kris Frost, who had a career-high 14 tackles. “Nothing changed. The big thing is not getting into those positions so you don’t have to make those big plays.”
Like the Kansas State game, Auburn went to the air on a key third-and-long play instead of running to ensure the clock kept ticking down and then punting if necessary. Again, quarterback Nick Marshall turned to D’haquille Williams, this time for 10 yards on a third-and-8 play that ensured South Carolina had just over a minute to drive for a potential tying — or winning — touchdown.
“We felt like we needed to try to win the game,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who considered passing again on the next third down.
South Carolina must regroup against Tennessee after losing three consecutive SEC games for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.
Spurrier kept his team in it with gambles that paid off, including four fourth-down conversions in South Carolina territory and the onside kick. Thompson passed for 402 yards and five touchdowns but was also intercepted three times in or near Auburn’s end zone.
“We messed up in the red zone a couple of times or else we had a chance,” Spurrier said. “We got the onside kick, so we stole that possession right there, and that gave us a fighting chance. We were only 2-for-5 in red zone chances, and that’s the worst we have been all year. That’s why we got beat.”