COLUMBIA, S.C. — Despite throwing three interceptions against South Carolina on Saturday, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix had a shot late to help the Tigers redeem what was for the most part a sloppy afternoon of action.
Unfortunately for Nix and the Tigers, their last-minute heroics came up just short.
Nix led a mad-dash 11-play, 71-yard drive down the field to try and tie things up with South Carolina in the final moments, but Nix’s desperation run on the game’s final play came nine yards short of the end zone to cap a 30-22 loss for the Tigers. It was a bitter ending for Auburn, which did its best to fight back after three turnovers fueled a 20-0 scoring run that propelled the Gamecocks to victory.
The loss marks Auburn’s first to South Carolina (2-2) since the Gamecocks joined the SEC. And it marks the first time the Tigers have started the season 2-2 since 2015.
“I’m proud of our guys for fighting until the end. You know, we didn’t handle adversity great in the third quarter and kind of got behind there and tried to play catch-up. I thought we played pretty good football in the first half. As far as the stats sheet, we played pretty good football, but the three turnovers, obviously, were big. They led to 21 points,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “In the second half we had seven penalties, and I think four led to first downs and kept them on the field, but give South Carolina credit. They played well. They had a good plan.”
Nix had endured a pair of picks early in the contest that kept the Gamecocks’ hopes alive, but his third proved to be the backbreaker for Auburn.
The Gamecocks took a 20-19 lead — their first of the game — with 6:31 to go in the third quarter, and after an Auburn drive that stalled out and a much-needed interception by Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe, the Tigers took over looking for even a semblance of the rhythm it established offensively in the first half.
The Tigers got going slowly but surely, before Nix and the offense found themselves facing a third-and-7 on the Auburn 34-yard line. Needing a big play to get the possession going, Nix fired the football in the direction of Seth Williams, but South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn saw the play coming immediately.
Horn, who had battled back and forth with Williams throughout the contest, jumped the route and took off 34 yards to the Auburn 8-yard line.
The Tigers’ defense, already winded from trying to stop the bleeding throughout the second half, was no match for South Carolina running back Kevin Harris on the next play. Harris ran with power right past the Auburn defense for an 8-yard score, which left the Tigers in a eight-point hole with just under a minute to go in the third quarter.
South Carolina kicker Parker White tacked on a 39-yard field goal with 9:13 to go in the contest, leaving the Tigers trailing by 11.
Auburn battled back after White’s kick thanks in large part to running back Tank Bigsby, who broke off a 30-yard run and a 19-yard run to keep the Tigers’ hopes alive. The drive ultimately ended short of the end zone, leading to kicker Anders Carlson being called on and nailing a 22-yard attempt to cut the Gamecocks’ lead to one possession.
The Tigers desperately needed one more stop after Carlson’s kick, but didn't get it quickly. South Carolina milked several valuable minutes off the clock, leaving Auburn facing dire circumstances with only 2:15 to go and no timeouts.
Despite his struggles, Nix didn’t seem to flinch with the game on the line.
Nix got things going by hitting Anthony Schwartz to start the drive then rebounded from an incompletion by scrambling 17 yards to get the Tigers nearly to midfield. After another incompletion, the sophomore quarterback found Eli Stove in the middle of the field, which again moved the chains and left them on the Gamecocks’ 35-yard line.
The Tigers reached the South Carolina 13-yard line before Nix was hit with an intentional-grounding penalty, pushing Auburn back to the 22. Nix improvised on the next play and gained ground back to the 12-yard line before going out of bounds, setting up a fouth-and-5 play that would ultimately decide whether or not the Tigers could force overtime.
Knowing it would be the last play of the game, Nix desperately searched for a receiver downfield before deciding there was no viable option in sight. He raced to the left but was tracked down by South Carolina’s Ernest Jones, who delivered the tackle two yards short of the first-down marker with the clock showing all zeroes.
Nix ended the game 24-of-47 passing for 272 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He also had 15 carries for 69 yards.
“I think the big thing is our guys fought. We got the ball back, we used our timeouts, the defense got the ball back. I think we drove the field and gave the chance to try to score at the end,” Malzahn said. “Our guys didn’t give up, so we’re taking that as a big-time positive and, you know, just one play away from having a chance to go for two and tie the game. I was proud of the way our guys fought.”
In the early minutes of action, everything seemed to be going according to plan for the Tigers.
The Gamecocks opened the game with a quick three-and-out, at which point the Auburn offense took to the field and went to work. The Tigers’ struggles on third down were non-existent to open the day, as Nix and the offense converted a pair of third downs before stalling and sending out Carlson, whose 35-yard field goal gave Auburn an early 3-0 advantage.
South Carolina’s next drive was torpedoed by a holding penalty and ended after three plays, and once again Auburn took advantage. The Tigers started the drive with excellent field position on their 44-yard line and made the most of the moment, which included Nix hitting three different receivers to lead the march downfield.
Nix’s final throw was a beauty, as the sophomore found Stove on the slant and connected with the senior for a 11-yard passing touchdown. Auburn’s two-point attempt following the score was no good, leaving the Tigers with a 9-0 lead with 4:33 to go in the first quarter.
Auburn’s defense was relentless against South Carolina in the first quarter, as evidenced by the Gamecocks averaging a measly 1.40 yard per play in the opening 15 minutes.
“Everybody was just on the same page, and we were clicking, man,” said Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe, who had 10 tackles in the loss. “We knew we had to come out there and play hard right out of the gate, and that's what we did.”
The second quarter, however, saw a change of pace, due mainly to mistakes by the Tigers.
Nix forced a throw on the first play of the second quarter, and Horn took advantage and intercepted the pass on the Auburn 29-yard line. The Gamecocks were determined to make Nix pay for the mistake, and they did so on Harris’ 3-yard touchdown run five plays later.
Harris ended the afternoon with 25 carries for 82 yards and two touchdowns to go with two receptions for 21 yards.
Nix and the Tigers regrouped and answered the Harris score with a 75-yard drive capped off by Bigsby’s 2-yard touchdown run — his first touchdown as a Tiger — which left Auburn with a nine-point lead. The Tigers’ defense held firm by forcing a much-needed three-and-out only for another turnover to put the defenders in another unfavorable position.
Facing a third-and-5 on the Tigers’ 39-yard line, Nix fired in the direction of Williams, who tried to make a play on the ball but inadvertently deflected it into the air. South Carolina’s Jaylin Dickerson pounced on the opportunity and picked off Nix to give the Gamecocks the ball on the Tigers’ 49.
Once again, South Carolina quarterback Collin Hill and company pounced on the chance to make Auburn pay. Hill guided an 11-play drive that ended with the senior quarterback going over the top for a 1-yard touchdown. Hill’s first score of the afternoon created a 16-14 contest, which proved to be the score at halftime.
What followed was a bizarre third and fourth quarter in which the Tigers had so much go wrong that even the big moments that followed in the final minutes weren’t enough.
Auburn played far from a perfect game Saturday, but despite several major mistakes the Tigers were still in contention until the final play. Now, the objective for Malzahn, his assistants and the players is to get back on track starting next Saturday at Ole Miss.
“You get back to Auburn and you look at the tape, and, you know, you’ve got to make the corrections needed,” Malzahn said. “We're just going to have to be big boys. We're going to have to man up, put it behind us, go on to next week and find a way to win and get that good feeling back and get some momentum.”
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