KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Jason Campbell is running the West Coast offense like an old pro and turning Auburn into a national title contender in the process.
The often-criticized quarterback threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns, and the eighth-ranked Tigers overwhelmed No. 10 Tennessee 34-10 on Saturday night.
Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown each ran for a touchdown to complement Campbell, and the Tigers’ swarming defense made Tennessee’s two freshmen quarterbacks look like neophytes for the first time this season. Junior Rosegreen had four interceptions to set a record for Auburn (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) and tie the SEC mark.
“All day long I heard about how great their two quarterbacks are,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. “I wouldn’t trade them for the one we’ve got. (Campbell) played a great football game.”
Erik Ainge got his first start for the Volunteers (3-1, 1-1) after racking up the best passer rating in the SEC over the first three games. The promotion did no good. He went 17-for-35 for 173 yards with four interceptions and a fumble.
Fellow freshman Brent Schaeffer had little success in his first game as a reliever. He also threw an interception and went 1-for-5.
“They’re freshmen, they’re going to learn,” Vols coach Phillip Fulmer said. “We played against a better football team tonight.”
Campbell has often received the blame from fans and media for Auburn’s past offensive inconsistency, despite playing for four offensive coordinators in four seasons.
“That is something I have never worried about in my career,” Campbell said. “I always knew I wasn’t getting the credit people should give me, but that’s one thing I didn’t worry about.”
He is finally flourishing under coordinator Al Borges’ West Coast offense, with its multiple shifts, quick throws and moving pockets. He also is showing the confidence and poise of a quarterback with 32 career starts.
Campbell summed up the transformation simply, “They’re giving me the opportunity to use all my abilities.”
Against the Vols, he looked off defenders and stepped up in the pocket. He threw with fine touch over defenders and zipped passes in between them. Campbell was 12-for-15 in the first half for 240 yards to lead the Tigers to a 31-3 lead.
The Tigers took the field knowing that their two main SEC West rivals—LSU and Arkansas—had lost. As if bolstered by the opportunity to grab command of the division, Auburn controlled the first quarter.
The Tigers forced a three-and-out on the first series of the game, got a piece of Tennessee’s punt, and Campbell and his two star tailbacks went to work at their own 45.
The Tigers drove the field with a mix of power running and quick passes. Brown finished the job by bowling over Tennessee’s Jason Allen, knocking the safety’s helmet off on the way to a 9-yard touchdown run.
After the Vols responded with a field goal, the Tigers marched down field again but couldn’t complete the drive this time. Brown fumbled at the 5 and Tennessee recovered at the 1.
It was only a temporary reprieve for the Vols.
Ainge lost the ball on a sneak and Auburn was back in the red zone. Campbell then made it 14-3 with a 5-yard pass to Ben Obomanu.
When Williams ran over Allen for a 5-yard touchdown in the second quarter it was 24-3 and most of the 107,828 fans at Neyland Stadium were stunned silent.
“We had so many mistakes we put them in perfect position to win,” Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “Mental errors, missed tackles. That comes back to hurt you in the end.”
Just when it looked as though Tennessee might make a game of it, Auburn’s defense came up with its third takeaway. Travis Williams picked off Ainge’s tipped pass at the LSU 32 with 2:05 left in the half.
Auburn wasn’t about to get conservative.
Campbell went deep on the next play, hitting Brown for 38 yards. Moments later, Campbell threw a bullet to Courtney Taylor slanting over the middle and the receiver broke free for a 31-yard TD play and a 28-point halftime lead.
Rosegreen picked off three passes in a second half that was otherwise a formality.
For Tennessee, it gets no easier next week; the Vols go to Georgia, which made a statement of its own with a 45-16 victory over LSU on Saturday.
“We have a lot left to go,” Vols tackle Michael Munoz said. “We still control our destiny in the SEC East.”
Auburn, a team that fell far short of lofty expectations last season, now has a 1 1/2 -game lead in the SEC West and its first win at Knoxville since 1983.
“We had something to prove,” Tuberville said. “We got better each snap. We got stronger each snap.”