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September 29, 2006
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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Blame it on South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who proved Thursday night that he remains one of college football's greatest offensive masterminds.
Or point the finger at Gamecocks quarterback Syvelle Newton, the former wide receiver who almost single-handedly knocked Auburn out of national title contention.
Whatever the reason, South Carolina made Auburn's highly touted defense look very ordinary Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Tigers didn't lose the game, but their defense lost its aura of invincibility.
"You kind of think you have the best defense there is," Auburn defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said after the Tigers' 24-17 victory. "They showed us we've got things to work on. We know our defense is good. We've just got to work on things to make it even better."
Auburn's defense had good reason for its supreme confidence.
The Tigers had given up just three points in their first two SEC games, including a 7-3 slugfest with LSU that ranks among the great defensive struggles in recent memory.
Auburn had allowed just six points per game overall to rank third in the nation in scoring defense. Nobody had scored in the fourth quarter against the Tigers all season.
None of that mattered to the Gamecocks.
South Carolina scored touchdowns on two of its last three possessions to move within striking distance, then marched all the way to Auburn's 5-yard line on its final series before losing the ball on downs.
The Gamecocks punted just once all night and probably would have scored more if Auburn hadn't maintained possession of the ball for the entire third quarter.
"It was a guessing game on defense," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "At times we played well. And at times we didn't."
Auburn's defense delivered when it mattered most.
The Tigers forced two red-zone turnovers in the first half and broke up a fourth-down pass to Sidney Rice in the end zone on the game's final play.
But in between those two turnovers and that fourth-down stop, Newton kept the Tigers on the run.
The former wide receiver continually avoided pressure and found holes in Auburn's defense. He threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns while also picking up a team-high 44 rushing yards.
Newton dominated South Carolina's offense so much that he either passed the ball or carried it himself on 30 of the Gamecocks' last 32 plays from scrimmage. He scrambled for third-down conversions on each of South Carolina's final two drives.
Although Auburn sacked Newton four times, only one of them came during that second-half comeback.
"It was very tough," Auburn defensive end Marquies Gunn said. "You think you've got him and the guy makes the play. They were on 12- and 13-play drives. We're looking for the three-and-out."
On this night, Auburn's offense had to bail out its defense.
Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox kept Newton and Co. on the sideline throughout the third quarter while engineering two scoring drives that extended a 14-10 halftime advantage to 24-10. Those two series featured a trio of improbable first-down completions.
Cox found Lee Guess for a 12-yard gain on third-and-11. He connected with Robert Dunn for an 8-yard pass on fourth-and-6. And on a third-and-21 play, Cox fired a 25-yard strike to Courtney Taylor that set up Auburn's final touchdown.
"Brandon stepped up big tonight," said Auburn tight end Tommy Trott, who scored his first career touchdown Thursday. "He's so cool back there in the pocket. He doesn't really get rattled."
Neither does Newton.
The senior quarterback never was intimidated all night and instead gave Auburn fans reason to worry about a defense that had looked impenetrable.
Auburn won't face another quarterback with Newton's moves the rest of the season, but this game certainly should make future SEC foes take notice.
Maybe Florida's game plan for Auburn two weeks from now will include more opportunities for freshman backup quarterback Tim Tebow, who has gained 7.2 yards per carry. Perhaps Ole Miss will see if Brent Schaeffer can utilize his mobility when the Rebels play host to Auburn on Oct. 28.
"Looking down the road, people are going to scramble like Newton did today," Gunn said. "We'll be working on that."
Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves believes the Tigers will solve whatever problems they had against South Carolina.
Groves considers Auburn's defensive ends fast enough to catch up to Newton or just about any other quarterback. He said the Tigers simply failed to stay in their lanes and make plays Thursday night.
"You can never expect that," Groves said of Newton's productive evening. "We tried to stop the quarterback from running around and tried to contain him. But we learned something."
So did the rest of the SEC.
And if any teams manage to beat Auburn this year, they ought to thank Spurrier and Newton for teaching them a lesson on how to keep the Tigers' vaunted defense on its heels.