AUBURN, Ala. — Daren Bates was, back in the day, a fleet-footed running back as a Memphis prep.
Now the senior’s role at Auburn is gobbling up tackles as a bruising linebacker. Pity poor New Mexico State tailback Germi Morrison, who found out exactly how bruising Bates could be in a moment of made-for-YouTube glory.
Auburn hasn’t enjoyed many of those this year. So the Tigers made the most of it, eventually revving up the running game to a 42-7 romp over New Mexico State to placate an announced crowd of 74,676 Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Tigers (2-7) recovered from a shaky start to increase their winning streak on Homecoming Week to 21 years and, more imperatively, snap a nasty five-game skid.
It was just a 7-0 lead at halftime, against the worst team on Auburn’s schedule to date, no doubt making the home fans uneasy once again. However, tailbacks Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb did what they’ve been supposed to do all year long — wearing down their foe in the second half and cranking out 311 rushing yards.
Mason garnered 152 yards and a touchdown, while McCalebb picked up 113 yards on just eight carries — 14.1 per rush — with two scores.
But back to Bates’ throwback offense, the pivotal play: a 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown, the longest in school history and Auburn’s first defensive score this year.
Junior safety Demetruce McNeal set it up by sacking Aggies quarterback Andrew Manley, who coughed it up to Bates in Auburn territory.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Bates broke a few tackles, but wasn’t quite into the open field when he reached the NMSU 20-yard-line. With Morrison still guarding the end zone, Bates plunged out his right arm and violently flung Morrison backwards, a video sure to be played on highlight reels for some time.
“I learned from him today. I need to grow a little bit to get my arms long so I can do that move,” Mason said, smiling. “I tried to steal the move from him later on in the game, but that’s a strong dude.”
Bates celebrated by diving into the end zone, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty enforced on the kickoff. Considering the circumstances, it was a small price to pay for a big-time play injecting life back into the Auburn sideline.
“That was the best thing I’ve done,” Bates said. “Everybody was just so happy. My little cousin just sent (the replay) to me, it’s already on my phone.
“We just had to get that taste out of our mouth, playing that bad last week.”
It was a startling defensive turnaround from one week to the next — the SEC’s leading offense, Texas A&M, piled on 63 points and 671 yards last Saturday. But the “other” Aggies (1-8), those who find themselves in last place in the WAC standings, were a tad toothless, limited to 305 total yards and a single fourth-quarter touchdown by a running back ironically named Tiger Powell.
“It’s good to have that swagger back and just finally get a win today for this team and for this university,” said McNeal, who led Auburn with 10 tackles (9 solo.) “You get on TV and watch a lot of SEC defenses play, they’re going out there with that swagger. Like, ‘These jokers ain’t getting nothing.’”
The Tigers set season-best figures in total defense as well as offense (475 yards.)
Bates, fullback Jay Prosch and wide receiver Trovon Reed each scored their first career touchdowns.
Central-Phenix City product Jonathan Wallace became Auburn’s fourth true freshman quarterback to win his starting debut, producing mixed results in a somewhat conservative gameplan. Wallace was asked to make throws on a few deep routes, but ultimately ended up with a so-so statline (9-for-16, 164 yards, TD, INT; 3 carries, 9 yards).
“Jonathan started off a little bit slow. He took a big hit in the game and never came out. He is just one of those tough guys,” coach Gene Chizik said. “Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased with the way he managed the team, directed the team, (and) made plays at critical times in the game when we needed them.”
Auburn steps back into SEC action next week in its third straight home game, playing No. 6 Georgia for the 116th time in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. The Tigers lead the series 54-53-8.