Having opened the season with a come-from-behind victory, Auburn hopes to overcome its offensive shortcomings again Saturday when it meets South Florida for the first time.
Brandon Cox threw a touchdown pass to Gabe McKenzie with 2:01 remaining Antonio Coleman returned a fumble for a score 50 seconds later, capping a comeback and giving the No. 17 Tigers a 23-13 win over Kansas State last week.
“We gutted it out. That was a gut win,” Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville said of Auburn’s first victory in nearly three years when trailing after the third quarter. “We are very fortunate, very fortunate.”
Cox, whose 20-5 record as a starter is tops among current SEC quarterbacks, finished 17-of-30 for 229 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked five times as Auburn’s inexperienced offensive line struggled to protect him.
The line’s play also hindered Auburn’s ground game, as the Tigers rushed for only 62 yards, well below their 172.8 average in 13 games last season.
“He is a tough young man,” Tuberville said of Cox. “He took a beating. They were bringing five, six, seven. They had everybody inside, and they were not letting us run the football. They were running their safeties inside out to try to make plays.
“We just could not 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.”
The offensive line returned only one starter, senior left tackle King Dunlap. He’s joined by junior left guard Tyronne Green, junior center Jason Bosley and freshmen Mike Berry and Lee Ziemba at right guard and tackle, respectively.
That inexperience, combined with the loss of starting running back Brad Lester to suspension, put extra pressure on the defense to step up Saturday.
The unit did just that, intercepting two passes and getting two sacks from senior Quentin Groves, while holding Kansas State to 27 rushing yards on 16 carries.
Groves is considered one of the top defensive ends in the country, and he’s one sack shy of tying the team record of 26 set by Gerald Robinson from 1982-85.
The Tigers could continue to have problems running the ball with Lester out. The junior is suspended due to unresolved academic issues, and the ban is expected to last until those issues are resolved, Tuberville said.
With Lester likely out again, sophomore Ben Tate is expected to start in his place after gaining 82 yards on 23 carries last week.
Tate and Auburn could face a challenge in getting the ground game going against South Florida, which held Elon to 33 rushing yards in a 28-13 victory Saturday.
Offensively, the Bulls got a terrific effort from freshman running back Mike Ford, who rushed for two touchdowns and caught another, gaining 83 yards on six carries.
“Mike did a nice job,” Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said. “He ran well. Obviously we got to look at him.”
Leavitt is hoping Ford can provide another option out of the backfield to go along with quarterback Matt Grothe, who led the team last season with 802 rushing yards and nine scores.
Grothe managed only 22 yards on eight carries against the Phoenix, but was effective throwing the ball, completing 23 of 39 passes for 238 yards and two TDs.
George Selvie recorded four sacks for South Florida, tying the team record set by Shurron Pierson in 2002.