If No. 3 Tennessee goes undefeated this year, it's hard to tell if the Vols will have their defense or Auburn's ineptitude to thank for it.
Shaun Ellis returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown Saturday and the Vols used two more Auburn turnovers and a goal-line stand to hang on for 17-9 win over the Tigers in a rematch of last year's Southeastern Conference championship game.
"From our standpoint, the day belonged to the defense," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Tennessee (4-0, 2-0) jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, then almost squandered it as Auburn shut down the Vols the rest of the game -- holding them to only four first downs in the second half.
"We didn't get a lot done on offense in the second half," Fulmer said. "We got 17 points and we couldn't do much after that."
Robert Bironas kicked two of his three field goals in the second half to bring Auburn (1-3, 1-2) within 17-9, but the Tigers missed two late opportunities to catch the Vols.
Freshman quarterback Gabe Gross, in for an injured Ben Leard, was intercepted on 4th-and-10 late in the game.
The Tigers got the ball back again on the Tennessee 45-yard line with 19 seconds to play, but Gross' desperation pass fell short as Auburn dropped to 1-3 for the first time since 1981.
Gross, the son of Auburn's former All-America center Lee Gross, gave the Tigers a chance to win the game. After Leard went down with a bruised right elbow at the end of the first half, Gross led Auburn's gutsy second-half comeback.
| Jamal Lewis, right, helped the Vols jump on top early in the first quarter with 67-yard TD run. (AP) |
Gross was 7-of-15 for 112 yards, had 25 yards rushing, and led Auburn's two second-half scoring drives.
"He's a freshman! I didn't think he knew anything," Auburn coach Terry Bowden said. "I didn't even think he knew a single play."
Leard was a miserable 1-of-10 for 11 yards when he left the game and Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin finished 5-of-14 for 68 yards.
Tennessee, which entered the game ranked second in the nation at stopping the run, was exploited by Auburn. The Tigers -- who have struggled all year running -- ran for a season-high 181 yards against the Vols.
"I said earlier this week I would take a 3-0 win and wouldn't gulp ... sometimes you've got to win ugly," Fulmer said.
That's just what the Vols did, and Fulmer knew his players weren't happy about it.
"The kids almost seem down in the locker room," Fulmer said. "But coming into Auburn and winning is something that is very hard to do."
It wouldn't have been so hard for Auburn if the Tigers had figured out how to dig themselves out of their own deep holes.
Auburn trailed No. 6 LSU 13-0 two weeks ago after LSU used turnovers on Auburn's first two possessions to open up the lead.
"All I can say is this team is being tested," Bowden said. "They could have laid down and they didn't."
Turnovers again plagued Auburn early. The Tigers marched down to the Tennessee 10-yard line on their first possession, but Leard's shovel pass was intercepted by Ellis and returned for the score.
Jamal Lewis broke free on Tennessee's first play from scrimmage for a 67-yard TD run that gave the Vols a 14-0 lead.
As was the case against LSU, Auburn had a chance to battle back. The Tigers had the ball deep in Tennessee territory three more times in the first half -- but only managed three points.
Courtney Rose recovered a Tennessee fumble on the Vols' 26-yard line and the Tigers moved it to the 10. But Leard lost a fumble on an option keeper.
The teams traded field goals to make it 17-3, but Auburn blew its chance to cut into Tennessee's lead even more.
Martin fumbled on a hard hit by Marcus Washington and Auburn recovered on the 1-yard line. But Leard left the game on the series and the Tigers couldn't punch it in on four tries as Tennessee took a 17-3 lead into halftime.
"The goal line stand was the play of the game," Fulmer said. "We worked on those all week in practice, but it's very rare to see one in a game."
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