Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Auburn beats Utah State, but it’s not going to feel good about it in the morning

Auburn 42, Utah State 38.
Auburn made its name in 2010 on the comeback: Seven times the Tigers trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter, and all seven times they rallied to win en route to a perfect season and a BCS championship. But none of those victories — even the legendary 24-point comeback at Alabama, or the last-second win over Oregon in the championship game itself — was quite as unbelievable as today's rally for two touchdowns in the final three minutes to beat Utah State. And none of them left the rancid aftertaste Auburn fans are going to wake up to when the celebration is over.

The finish was worthy of a celebration, if for no other reason than the Tigers didn't actually lose to an outmanned, 23-point underdog that hasn't posted a winning season since 1996. That didn't seem possible with four minutes to play, when Utah State scored its fifth touchdown of the day to go up 38-28 and entire sections of Jordan-Hare Stadium began to empty in despair. ESPN's cameras caught some of the fans who stayed fighting tears, and some others unable to hold them back.

Auburn beats Utah State, but it’s not going to feel good about it in the morningBut from that point on, Auburn proceeded to drive 65 yards on six plays for a touchdown (a 15-yard pass from Barrett Trotter to Philip Lutzenkirchen) that cut the Aggies' lead to 38-35 with 2:12 on the clock. It then proceeded to recover the ensuing onside kick and drive 43 yards for the winning touchdown, a one-yard plunge by Michael Dyer. The defense held off the last gasp by Utah State's offense, and the burgeoning crisis — three hours in the making — was averted in a matter of minutes. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is always worth a roll or two at Toomer's Corner, while it's still there.

For an exhilarating finish in the season opener, it doesn't get much better. For an outfit that still has seven ranked teams waiting on the remainder of its schedule, plus a trip to Clemson, it's a terrifying first step out of the gate, and one that seems to confirm all of the worst projections of doom this summer.

For now, anyway, that has nothing to do with Trotter, who turned in a brilliant line — 17-of-23 passing for 259 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions — in his first start in place of last year's hero, übermensch quarterback Cam Newton. The problem, like last year, was the defense. Led by a true freshman quarterback making his first career start, on the road, in front of 80,000 people, Utah State churned out five touchdown drives covering at least 14 plays, all of them draining more than 5 1/2 minutes off the clock. For the game, the Aggies converted three fourth-down attempts on three tries, earned 30 first downs to Auburn's 17 and held the ball for nearly 38 minutes to Auburn's twenty-two — a full quarter more that Utah State's offense was on the field and Auburn's wasn't. If the Tigers hadn't recovered the decisive onside kick, they had had done nothing at all to suggest they could stop Utah State from running out the rest of the clock at will.

Against Utah State, somehow, that didn't doom them to defeat. The nation's longest active winning streak continues at 15 games. But Utah State was also supposed to be one of the few gimmes of the year, a warmup before the Tigers hit a gauntlet with no margin for error. If this is the real Auburn, the trip down the mountain is going to be steep and painful.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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