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September 3, 2011

Winners and losers: Auburn escapes

This clearly isn't the same Auburn team that rode Cam Newton's arms and legs to the national championship.

The Tigers no longer have Newton, the Heisman-winning quarterback who arguably had the greatest single-season performance of his generation last fall. Nor do they have defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the 2010 Lombardi Award winner who was sorely missed Saturday in Auburn's opener.

But the Tigers still have their fourth-quarter magic.

Auburn needed all that mojo and then some to avoid what would have been the most embarrassing season-opening loss ever by a reigning national champion. Auburn escaped with a 42-38 victory over lightly regarded Utah State only after scoring two touchdowns in the last 2 minutes, 7 seconds to erase a 10-point deficit.

"I think that [it] has kind of been instilled in this group that you never look at the clock and the scoreboard until it says 0:00," Auburn coach Gene Chizik told reporters afterward. "So in that regard, we are thrilled that we came out with the win. No question about it, I think it is obvious that everybody that saw the game realizes that we did not play well as a football team. There are no excuses for that."

This marked the fourth time in its past 13 games that Auburn has rallied to win after trailing by double digits. Auburn was behind or tied in the fourth quarter of half its 14 wins last season.

Auburn spotted Clemson 17 points in the second week of the 2010 season. Auburn won that game 27-24 in overtime after scoring the tying TD with 12:36 left in regulation.

One week later, Auburn rallied to beat South Carolina 35-27 after trailing 27-21 at the start of the fourth quarter.

Wes Byrum made game-winning field goals as time expired in a 37-34 victory over Kentucky and in a 22-19 BCS championship game triumph over Oregon.

Auburn trailed Arkansas 43-37 with 12 minutes remaining before scoring the last 22 points of the game.

Onterio McCalebb's tiebreaking 70-yard touchdown run with 5:05 left gave Auburn a 24-17 victory over LSU.

In the most memorable comeback of all, Auburn rallied from a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa to beat Alabama 28-27 in its regular-season finale. Auburn trailed 27-21 at the start of the fourth quarter.

This latest comeback may have been the most stunning.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Auburn WR Emery Blake]

Auburn looked dead after a gutsy fake field-goal call by Utah State coach Gary Andersen set up a touchdown that put Utah State ahead 38-28 with 3:38 left. New Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter led a quick touchdown drive that kept the Tigers alive, then a flawless onside kick gave the Tigers the ball back. Michael Dyer's 1-yard touchdown run capped that drive with 30 seconds left and gave Auburn the win.

"If we had played like we did at the end of the game all game long, it really shouldn't have been close," Trotter said afterward.

Of course, the bigger shock was that Auburn had to rally at all against a traditional WAC also-ran. Utah State has had 13 consecutive losing seasons, and Auburn made Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a true freshman and former two-star recruit from Houston, look like an All-America candidate in his college debut.

Keeton completed 70 percent of his passes for 213 yards and ran for two touchdowns to engineer an offense that gained 448 yards and controlled possession for more than 37:30. Stunningly, Utah State outrushed Auburn 227-78.

As much as Auburn was expected to miss Newton, the Tigers might miss Fairley even more at this point of the season. If Utah State could move the ball up and down the field against Auburn, how is this defense going to slow Mississippi State and Clemson the next two weeks?

Only the most faithful Auburn fans expected this team to make a serious run at a second consecutive national title. Auburn had 11 players making their first career starts Saturday. Tre Mason, who scored on a 97-yard kickoff return, was one of 13 true freshmen to play against Utah State.

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Still, as young as they are, the still have enough talent to compete for an SEC West title if they grow up fast. But if Auburn keeps playing the way it did Saturday, the team that won last season's national championship could struggle to earn any kind of bowl bid at all.

"We didn't play well, period," Chizik said. "No excuses. I thought it was a very poor defensive effort. That's not acceptable at Auburn, so I fully expect us to rectify that next week."

While Utah State's near-upset of Auburn garnered the majority of attention in the first Saturday of the season, here's a recap of the day's other major winners and losers.

WINNERS

Houston QB Case Keenum: One year after tearing his ACL in a loss to UCLA, Keenum earned some revenge by throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns as Houston beat UCLA 38-34 in his first game back from that injury.

Michigan LB Brandon Herron: He put Michigan ahead for good with a 94-yard interception return midway through the second quarter and added a 29-yard fumble return for a second touchdown in the Wolverines' rain-shortened 34-10 victory over Western Michigan.

Sacramento State's gamble: After his team scored a touchdown in overtime at Oregon State, Sacramento State coach Marshall Sperbeck decided he had no use for a second extra session. Rather than kicking an extra point that would have tied the game at 28, FCS member Sacramento State went for the win. The gamble paid off when Jeff Fleming threw to Brandyn Reed for a two-point conversion that gave Sacramento State a 29-28 victory.

Nebraska in season openers: Nebraska's 40-7 rout of Chattanooga marked the 26th consecutive time the Cornhuskers have won their season opener. That represents the nation's longest season-opening win streak.

USC QB Matt Barkley and WR Robert Woods: Barkley and Woods connected on three touchdown passes and each set a school single-game record in a 19-17 victory over Minnesota. Woods entered the record books by catching 17 passes, while Barkley set a record with 34 completions.

The understudies in the Northwestern-Boston College game: Injuries to Northwestern QB Dan Persa and Boston College TB Montel Harris seemed to remove this game of its star power, but the backups to those stars made the most of their opportunities. Kain Colter replaced Persa and had 196 passing yards and 71 rushing yards in Northwestern' 24-17 victory. Andre Williams stepped in for Harris and rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

Ohio State QB Joe Bauserman: Bauserman, a 25-year-old former minor league pitcher, hadn't started a football game in eight years, since he was a high school senior in Tallahassee, Fla., but he sure didn't show any signs of rust in a 42-0 shutout of Akron. Bauserman threw three touchdown passes - all to TE Jake Stoneburner - and ran for a fourth score. Bauserman got this chance because of Terrelle Pryor's suspension and subsequent departure. And he could have a tough time holding off backup Braxton Miller, a highly touted true freshman. But he sure played Saturday as if he isn't ready to give up his starting spot anytime soon.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Ohio State TE Jake Stoneburner]

Clemson's five-star freshmen: Even after finishing 6-7 last year for its first losing season since 1998, Clemson managed to sign four five-star recruits, the most of any FBS program. Two of those five-star prospects made their presence felt in a 43-19 victory over Troy. Sammy Watkins caught seven passes for 81 yards, including a 33-yarder for Clemson's first touchdown. Mike Bellamy raced 75 yards for a touchdown on his first carry. Both are from Florida - Watkins from Fort Myers and Bellamy from Punta Gorda.

Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech lost to FCS program James Madison last year, and Appalachian State pulled off perhaps the biggest FCS vs. FBS upset ever when it knocked off Michigan five years ago. This matchup may as well have had an upset alert attached to it. But the Hokies made sure history didn't repeat. They scored touchdowns on six of their first nine possessions and breezed to a 66-13 victory.

Air Force WR Mikel Hunter: It's not often that a wide receiver grabs the spotlight in Air Force's run-oriented offense, but Hunter had two huge plays in the Falcons' 37-20 win over South Dakota. Hunter scored on an 80-yard reverse in the game's first play from scrimmage and added a 55-yard touchdown catch later in the game.

Ricardo Allen's redemption: After fumbling early in the game to set up Middle Tennessee's first touchdown, Allen came up big on the game's final play by blocking a 47-yard field-gal attempt to preserve Purdue's 27-24 victory.

Fans of Boise State - and BCS chaos: TCU may have lost to Baylor on Friday, but Boise State's 35-21 victory over Georgia keeps alive the possibility that a team from outside the six major conferences could earn a BCS bid again this season. This was the only game this season against a Big Six team for Boise State, and Boise should be favored in every remaining regular-season game.

USF (in road games against high-profile opponents): If USF played as well in Big East competition as it did in non-conference road games against big-name teams, the Bulls would have won a couple of conference titles by now. The Bulls' 23-20 victory at Notre Dame continued their recent tradition of coming up big when the spotlight is brightest. USF also won at Auburn in 2007, at Florida State in 2009 and at Miami last season.

LSU defense: Patrick Peterson and Drake Nevis may have moved on, but LSU's new faces showed in a 40-27 victory over Oregon that they'll continue playing quality defense. LSU held 2010 NCAA rushing leader LaMichael James to 54 yards on 18 carries and didn't allow Oregon's quick-strike offense to gain more than 18 yards on any play.

South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia: After losing his job as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback in a surprise move, Garcia replaced an ineffective Connor Shaw and helped the Gamecocks rally from a 17-0 deficit in a 56-37 victory over East Carolina. Garcia ran for two touchdowns and threw for a third score.

Navy QB Kriss Proctor: The graduation of star QB Ricky Dobbs apparently won't slow down Navy's potent rushing attack. Proctor began Navy's post-Dobbs era by rushing for 176 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-17 victory over Delaware, last season's FCS runner-up.

Arkansas WR Joe Adams: Although he caught only one pass in a 51-7 rout of Missouri State, Adams made quite an impact on special teams. He tied an SEC single-game record by scoring on two punt returns, one from 61 yards out and another from 78 yards away.

Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham: He rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-16 victory over Buffalo, giving new Pitt coach Todd Graham a win in his Panthers debut.

Washington CB Desmond Trufant: His interception in the end zone with 41 seconds left preserved Washington's 30-27 victory over Eastern Washington, last season's FCS champ. Trufant's interception spoiled a big day by Eastern Washington's Bo Levi Mitchell, a former SMU quarterback who threw for 473 yards and drove the Eagles to Washington's 25 in the final minute.

Florida RB Chris Rainey: Rainey found three ways to reach the end zone in the Gators' 41-3 whipping of Florida Atlantic. Rainey scored on a 14-yard run, a 14-yard catch and a 21-yard return of a blocked punt. He finished with 79 rushing yards on 11 carries and six catches for 65 yards.

Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish: One of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks opened the season in style by throwing five touchdown passes and rushing for a sixth score in Northern Illinois' 49-26 victory over Army.

LOSERS

Mother nature: Poor weather throughout America's heartland forced temporary delays of the USF-Notre Dame, Michigan-Western Michigan, Iowa-Tennessee Tech and Montana-Tennessee games. The Michigan-Western Michigan game was eventually halted for good with the Wolverines leading 34-10 with 1:27 left in the third quarter. The Howard-Eastern Michigan game in Ypsilanti, Mich., was postponed until Sunday.

Pac-12: UCLA loses to Houston. Oregon falls to LSU. USC squeaks past Minnesota at home. Oregon State loses to FCS program Sacramento State. Colorado falls at Hawaii. Not the way this conference wanted to celebrate its first week as a 12-team league.

Ole Miss' collapse: After leading BYU 13-0 midway through the fourth quarter, Ole Miss gave up two touchdowns in the last 10 minutes of a 14-13 loss. The Rebels also committed a horse-collar penalty that allowed precious time to tick off the clock on BYU's final possession. And they somehow committed a delay-of-game penalty while trying to drive into field-goal range with 20 seconds left.

Boston College run defense: Boston College led the nation in run defense last season, but the Eagles allowed 227 rushing yards and 4.2 yards per carry against Northwestern. The Eagles hadn't given up 200 rushing yards in a game since a 28-14 loss at Virginia Tech on Oct. 10, 2009. An injury to DT Kaleb Ramsey - the lone returning starter on Boston College's front four - hindered the Eagles' run-stuffing ability.

Oregon State's slow starts: Oregon State's overtime loss to Sacramento State continued its recent history of early-season struggles. Oregon State got off to 2-3 starts in 2006 and 2007 before finishing 10-4 in'06 and 9-4 in '07. The Beavers dropped their first two games in 2008 and ended up 9-4. Oregon State also split its first four games in 2009 and finished 8-5. Last season, the Beavers dropped two of their first three en route to a 5-7 record.

Kent State's rushing attack: Kent State was held to minus-9 yards on 23 carries in a 48-7 loss to Alabama. The Flashes also struggled to throw the ball against an Alabama defense that figures to rank among the nation's best. Kent State gained 90 total yards and crossed midfield once.

UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel: He already was occupying one of the hottest seats in the nation even before his team fell to Houston. Neuheisel has had terrible luck with quarterbacks since arriving at UCLA, and his misfortune continued Saturday when starter Kevin Prince sustained a concussion in the second quarter.

Missing players: If you put together an all-star team of all the players suspended for the opening week, you'd have a potential national title contender. Our all-suspended squad would feature Ohio State's Mike Adams and Georgia Tech's Phil Smith anchoring the offensive line, Tulsa's Damaris Johnson and Oregon's Cliff Harris returning kicks and Ohio State's Boom Herron and USC's Marc Tyler carrying the ball. Our star-studded defense would feature Miami's Marcus Forston and Olivier Vernon working alongside Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox up front, Miami's Sean Spence and Oregon's Kiko Alonso at linebacker plus Miami's Ray Ray Armstrong and Harris in the secondary. We'd even have a quarterback controversy: Miami's Jacory Harris and LSU's Jordan Jefferson could compete for the right to throw to a deep receiving corps that includes Ohio State's DeVier Posey, LSU's Russell Shepard, Hawaii's Darius Bright, Miami of Ohio's Nick Harwell, Alabama's Darius Hanks and Johnson. And if that offense weren't good enough to move the ball, Penn State's Anthony Fera and Michigan's Will Hagerup could share the punting duties.

Notre Dame: Remember all that preseason talk about how Brian Kelly had the Irish ready to start competing for BCS bids again? Forget it. The Irish resembled some of the worst Notre Dame teams of the Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis eras. Notre Dame gained twice as many yards as USF but committed five turnovers and failed to score on four trips to the red zone. The Irish better correct those mistakes in a hurry, as Michigan, Michigan State and Pittsburgh are next on the schedule.

Georgia: Before the season, Georgia coach Mark Richt said he scheduled this Labor Day weekend game with Boise State because a victory over the Broncos would change the national perception that Georgia was a program on the decline. The Bulldogs' performance instead only reinforced that perception. This loss isn't a season-killer by any means. A victory over South Carolina next week would allow Georgia to seize early control of the SEC East race. But a loss to the Gamecocks would drop Georgia to 0-2 and would make Richt's exit seem inevitable.

Oregon RB De'Anthony Thomas' disappointing debut: Thomas, the nation's No. 5 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, undoubtedly will have plenty of outstanding days in an Oregon uniform. Saturday wasn't one of them. In the third quarter of his college debut, Thomas fumbled deep in Oregon territory to set up an LSU touchdown. Thomas fumbled again on the ensuing kickoff to set up another LSU touchdown. The two turnovers helped LSU increase its lead from 16-13 to 30-13.

Washington State QB Jeff Tuel's luck: Tuel, a junior who has played well without much help for most of his career, fractured his left clavicle in a 64-21 victory over Idaho State. Washington State officials declined to say how long he will be sidelined. The good news for Washington State is that Marshall Lobbestael stepped in for Tuel and showed some promise while throwing for 230 yards and two touchdowns.

Normally reliable kickers: Some of the most accurate kickers of the 2010 season weren't nearly as effective in the opening week of the 2011 campaign. The trend that started Thursday with the struggles of Syracuse's Ross Krautman and Wake Forest's Jimmy Newman continued Saturday. Notre Dame's David Ruffer, a Lou Groza Award finalist who went 18-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season, missed a 30-yarder in the Irish's loss to USF. And Duke's Will Snyderwine, who went 21-of-24 a year ago, missed a 28-yard attempt with 1:43 left in the Blue Devils' 23-21 loss to FCS school Richmond.

Next week's schedule: Heading into the season, the most glamorous matchups in the second week of the 2011 schedule seemed to be Notre Dame's trip to Michigan and the Georgia-South Carolina skirmish between the hedges. Neither game looks quite as attractive now that Notre Dame and Georgia already have lost.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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