COLUMBIA, S.C. — The defending national champions aren’t done yet.
Auburn and its maligned defense bounced back in a big way on Saturday, defeating No. 10 South Carolina 16-13. The Tigers (4-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) overcame a spotty offense to wear down the Gamecocks at the end. Barrett Trotter found Phillip Lutzenkirchen for the go-ahead, 9-yard touchdown with 1:38 left.
“This was a game they willed to win,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
It’s been a rough go for the BCS champions since beating Oregon for the title last January.
Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley jumped to the NFL, leaving big holes on both sides of the ball. They lost their 17-game win streak and their aura of invincibility two weeks ago at Clemson, which ran up 624 yards.
Plus, the Gamecocks had plenty of motivation to succeed, losing twice to Auburn a year ago, including a humiliating 56-17 loss in the SEC championship.
Instead, it was the Auburn defenders who shut down South Carolina star tailback Marcus Lattimore and gave the offense enough time to pull out its 11th straight win against SEC opponents.
“It was a great atmosphere and all those kind of things and to come out with the win the way we did was great,” Trotter said.
It also got Auburn off to the right start in an October filled with powerful opponents and critical contests. The Tigers travel to Arkansas next week before playing Florida and LSU their next two games.
When “you beat a top-10 team, I feel that is pretty evident what that does for you moving forward,” Chizik said.
In Auburn’s case, it may have saved a season teetering on the edge.
The Tigers were down 13-9 in the fourth quarter and couldn’t break through on South Carolina’s swarming defense. But Gamecocks assistant coach Ellis Johnson said Auburn’s fast pace wore down his defenders. That was apparent down the stretch when Barrett led Auburn on a 12-play, 57-yard drive that ended with a pass to wide open Lutzenkirchen in front of the goal line. The junior fumbled the ball into the end zone, then recovered it just before sliding out of bounds to put Auburn ahead.
South Carolina advanced to Auburn’s 29 on its final possession before time expired, though Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier argued that clock should have stopped with 1 second left after a completed pass for a first down.
Spurrier said he was told that receiver Bruce Ellington‘s knee touched the ground when the clock had run out. “That’s what he told me. I said, ‘Wait a minute now, don’t you review that?” Spurrier said.
They did not, giving the Gamecocks their seventh straight defeat against Auburn.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Spurrier said. “It’s in the history books. So it’s all over. We got beat. Still haven’t beaten them.”
Auburn used Michael Dyer like Spurrier had used Lattimore this season — a clock-controller who can’t be stopped.
Dyer ran for 141 yards on a career-high 41 carries. Dyer, a sophomore like Lattimore, had come into this one with 45 fewer carries than Gamecock standout, who was the SEC’s rushing leader.
Lattimore ended with 66 yards on a season-low 17 rushes.
“The defense played good, the offense didn’t,” Lattimore said. “But we left it at that. We’ve got to put it behind us.”
It looked like South Carolina’s defense would be enough to bail it out of trouble as quarterback Stephen Garcia again had problems putting up points against an Auburn defense that was ranked last in the SEC.
Instead, the Tigers D rose and held the Gamecocks to 54 yards and one first down in the final period. And Trotter and the Tigers found their groove just in time. They converted four third downs in the go-ahead drive, including the touchdown to Lutzenkirchen.
“Holding (Lattimore) to under 100 yard and getting three or four turnovers were the goals this week and we did it and got the win,” Auburn linebacker Jake Holland said.
Still, when Lattimore broke through for a 15-yard TD run midway through the third quarter, it appeared it might hold up the way South Carolina’s defense was playing.
Melvin Ingram had 3 1/2 sacks and one of four South Carolina interceptions.
Trotter was 12 of 23 for 112 yards with two interceptions.
This one looked like a contest of who’d crack first: Auburn’s last-in-the-SEC defense or South Carolina’s can’t-move-the-ball-too-well offensive attack that has struggled to score the past two weeks.
In the first half, it was the Tigers’ D that came up bigger than it had this season. They held Lattimore to 36 yards on nine carries and the Gamecocks managed only four first downs on nine first-half possessions.
Garcia, a lightning rod for Gamecock criticism for his inconsistency, was at it again. He was 9 of 23 for 160 yards and two interceptions. Garcia also had a 50-yard scoring throw to Alshon Jeffery.
Garcia didn’t speak to the media. His grandfather had passed away earlier this week, South Carolina said, and he wanted to be with family.
Usually, it’s Lattimore who bails the Gamecocks out but even he didn’t look like himself. He fumbled on one drive and could not fight his way through Auburn’s charged up defense.
Not that the Tigers had much success with South Carolina’s defense, led by Ingram and safety Antonio Allen. Ingram had two of the Gamecocks three first-half sacks and picked off Auburn’s chance to extend a 9-6 lead right before halftime.
The Tigers’ reliable kicker Cody Parkey was lined up for a 32-yard field goal try with 1:06 left when holder Ryan White took the snap, rolled right and threw toward Lutzenkirchen near the goal line. But defensive end Ingram had dropped back in coverage to end the threat.