AUBURN, Ala. (AP)—Auburn’s defense was getting run over again, this time by No. 2 Florida and it’s two-headed quarterback attack.
Coach Tommy Tuberville had seen enough and challenged his defenders at halftime.
The Tigers responded, scoring on a blocked punt and a last-play fumble return and making a pivotal late interception to beat the Gators 27-17 on Saturday night and leave the Southeastern Conference without an unbeaten team.
“We couldn’t slow them down in the first half, and they couldn’t move it in the second half,” Tuberville crowed. “Offensively, we didn’t score a touchdown. How do you do that and beat a team like that?”
In the end, that merciless SEC claimed another victim as Florida became the fourth team ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 to lose this season, joining Texas, Notre Dame and Auburn.
The 11th-ranked Tigers (6-1, 4-1) turned the tables on Chris Leak, Tim Tebow & Co. in the second half, benefiting from the quarterback’s fumble deep in Auburn territory that killed a chance for at least a go-ahead field goal.
Florida coach Urban Meyer challenged the call arguing that it was an incomplete pass but replay officials let the play stand—and it turned the game around. It also cost the Gators their final timeout, but he didn’t grouse about the call after the game. Neither did Leak, though he said he thought his arm was going forward.
“We will go back and watch it on TV, but obviously there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call on the field,” Meyer said. “We have to live with the call and we have to get better.”
Eric Brock’s interception of Leak’s pass set up the last of John Vaughn’s four field goals, a 39-yarder with 31 seconds left after missing a 45-yard attempt on the previous possession.
“We needed a big play at that moment,” Brock said. “We played lights-out the entire second half.”
It was just another chapter in the topsy-turvy saga of SEC front-runners this season, with Auburn beating LSU, Arkansas beating then-No. 2 Auburn last week and Florida (6-1, 4-1) toppling Tennessee and LSU. The internal battering has threatened to leave the league without a strong national championship contender.
Auburn hardly looked like the same team that was physically whipped in that 27-10 loss to the Razorbacks—at least in the second half.
Tuberville’s halftime scolding of the defense worked.
“He just said it looked like they were playing scared,” said quarterback Brandon Cox, who passed for an efficient 182 yards. “He told us we had just as much talent on defense as they had on offense.”
The Tigers have now won six consecutive home games against top-10 opponents and eight of nine overall. The Gators had won five in a row against ranked opponents, one shy of the school record.
Trailing 21-17, Florida got a final attempt from its own 20 with 31 seconds left. Three incompletions later, Leak hit Dallas Baker across the middle and Baker lateralled to Jarred Fayson, whose own lateral attempt turned into a fumble recovered by Patrick Lee. The defensive back raced 20 yards into the end zone to place an exclamation point on the Tigers’ win.
Many Auburn fans lingered in their seats well after the finale, and a number of players headed to the student section to celebrate with fans before heading to their locker room.
An elated Tuberville wanted to join Auburn fans in the traditional toilet papering of Toomer’s Corner downtown.
“Where’s my toilet paper?” he said. “I’m going to Toomer’s Corner. What a game! Good gosh!”
Auburn’s other touchdown came when Tre Smith returned a blocked punt 15 yards early in the third quarter to give Auburn an 18-17 lead.
The Gators appeared poised to retake the lead early in the fourth. Leak hit Baker on a 32-yard pass down the right sideline and receiver Andre Caldwell gained 27 yards on an option pitch.
On third-and-3 from the 6, Leak started to throw then decided to hold on as Auburn’s Quentin Groves applied pressure. The ball squirted from Leak’s hand and linebacker Tray Blackmon scooped it up. Blackmon was playing in his first game of the season after a six-game suspension.
Meyer said there was plenty of blame to go around despite Leak’s uncharacteristic mistakes.
“When you face a pass rush like that in this type of environment, bad things can happen,” Meyer said.
Florida managed only 85 yards and five first downs after halftime. Leak completed just 9-of-17 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Leak and his back-up Tebow both accounted for TDs en route to a 17-11 halftime lead. Leak hit Baker for a 15-yard scoring pass and Tebow ran 16 yards into the end zone on his only play of the half.
Brad Lester ran for a career-high 94 yards and Kenny Irons gained another 67. Groves had three sacks.
Even Auburn’s mistakes turned into points.
Florida’s Derrick Harvey, who had 2 1/2 sacks in the first half, recovered a fumble by tight end Tommy Trott on the Florida 3. Left guard Jim Tartt was called for holding in the end zone on the next play, giving the Tigers a safety.
The Gators were left nursing wounded national title hopes, and hoping for a rematch in the SEC title game.
“That is real bitter, but we are going to move forward and stay focused on the SEC championship,” Caldwell said.