My East Coast deadlines don’t make writing game stories like this enjoyable. But it does force me to get my stuff out quicker. Here’s the game story that’ll appear in tomorrow’s paper:
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn finally sprang to life Saturday night, shaking off a lethargic first half to pull away from lowly Florida Atlantic for the 30-14 victory everyone expected.
It did nothing to quell fears that the team is not nearly ready for the brutal SEC schedule that lies ahead, however.
The Tigers (3-1), who entered as 31- to 32-point favorites, put things out of reach with a 20-point third quarter, completing their 11th straight win at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But it did little to erase the memory of a listless first half during which FAU played Auburn neck-and-neck and a final score that, victory or not, was far closer than expected.
“All the way around, I thought it was a very below-average football game,” Tigers head coach Gene Chizik said. “From the beginning to the end, and it never got better.”
Barrett Trotter threw for 178 yards and two touchdowns, Mike Dyer ran for 68 yards and Emory Blake added 78 receiving yards a score, but it was hardly a joyful atmosphere afterward.
The underlying problems that plagued Auburn the first three games remain, an uneasy thought for a team about to plunge headfirst into an SEC stretch that features ranked foes South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida and LSU.
Florida Atlantic dropped to 0-3 but, after being outscored 85-3 in losses to Florida and Michigan State to start the season, played much more competitively than anyone thought.
Linebacker Cory Henry intercepted Trotter on the first play from scrimmage, setting up a 39-yard field goal by Vinny Zaccario that matched the Owls’ point total all season and gave them a 3-0 lead.
Auburn came back with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Trotter to Blake. A Cody Parkey field goal made it 10-3, but the Owls hung with the Tigers the rest of the half.
Zaccario’s second field goal, a 43-yarder, trimmed the lead to six. At halftime, Florida Atlantic, which had averaged a mere 92.5 yards its first two games, trailed Auburn in yardage only 155-153.
“We’re all laying an egg right now,” Chizik said at halftime.
Order was restored in the second half, although only by the minimum amount.
Auburn freshman cornerback Jermaine Whitehead, who Chizk praised for coming on in recent weeks, stepped in front of a Graham Wilbert pass early in the third quarter, returning it 25 yards for a touchdown and injecting much-needed life into the lifeless Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd 82,249.
Things fell into place after that. Onterio McCalebb scored on a perfectly executed 51-yard screen pass to make it 24-6.
Auburn’s defense finally arrived in the third quarter. Neiko Thorpe tracked a deep ball nicely for an interception that led to the first of two Parkey field goals that gave the Tigers a 30-6 lead after three quarters.
Still, concerns remain. FAU, which had managed a mere 185 yards of offense in the first two weeks, finished with 307 yards, far fewer than the 534.3 Auburn had allowed on average this season, but still too many considering the competition.
The Owls entered the game last nationally in third-down conversions (2-for-23) but converted on 6 of 14 opportunities Saturday, continuing to expose a season-long weakness for the Tigers.
FAU had one first down against Michigan State two weeks ago. It had 20 Saturday.
Offensively, Auburn still lacked consistency. After a week in which coaches pledged to get the ball more to Dyer, who was second in the SEC averaging 119.3 yards per game entering the weekend, the sophomore had only 14 carries for 68 yards.
While that workload is expected to increase against SEC competition, the Tigers still didn’t seem to find the identity that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has sought, finishing with 315 yards, their lowest output this season.
Auburn ran for 137 yards against a defense allowing nearly 200 a game. Trotter hit big on the screen pass to McCalebb but still didn’t stretch the field with many downfield attempts. He also took a few hits, getting sacked three times.
“A lot of times, I felt like Barrett was running for his life tonight,” Chizik said.
Making matters worse, McCalebb and receiver Trovon Reed both got digned up in the fourth quarter, needing attention from the trainers. Chizik had no updates on their status afterward.
Overall, it was an ugly win.
“You saw it,” Chizik said. “It just wasn’t a very good performance all the way around.
“But we scored 30 points, we won the game, and we’ll build on all the positives and get all the negatives corrected.”