January 03, 2004
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Auburn filled in a piece of its improbable championship puzzle by hanging on in the Sugar Bowl.
Jason Campbell threw a touchdown pass, John Vaughn kicked three short field goals and the No. 3 Tigers completed a perfect season with a 16-13 victory over ninth-ranked Virginia Tech on Monday night.
Auburn (13-0) had a couple of second-half turnovers and gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass with two minutes left.
Not that the Tigers were willing to concede anything to the winner of Tuesday night's Orange Bowl between No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 2 Oklahoma.
"Neither team is better than us," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We'll play them anytime, anywhere."
Virginia Tech (10-3) could have made things even easier on the Bowl Championship Series by upsetting Auburn. But the Hokies had a couple of major blunders, dropping a pass in the end zone and missing a chip-shot field goal.
Bryan Randall threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Josh Morgan with 6:58 left in the game to ruin the shutout.
Randall dealt another blow to the Tigers when he threw the long touchdown pass to Morgan.
Auburn recovered the onside kick and kneeled down to run out the clock, deciding to preserve the victory rather than try to win more impressively.
The Auburn band even launched into a Bon Jovi song that summed things up for the Southeastern Conference champions: "Living on a Prayer."
"I just wanted to win by one," said Tuberville, who nearly lost his job at the end of last season. "That's all that counts. If you have to win with style points, you might as well throw out all the systems."
Campbell was named MVP after completing 11-of-16 for 189 yards with one interception. Randall threw for 299 yards but was picked off twice.
"People just don't understand how hard it is to go 13-0," Campbell said. "I'm not going to sit here and say we're No. 2 behind anybody."
The odd team out in a troika of 12-0 teams, Auburn settled for a spot in the Sugar Bowl against the Hokies, while USC and Oklahoma were tapped for the Tuesday night's Orange Bowl -- the BCS title game.
Nothing ever seems to work out smoothly in Division I-A football, the only college sport that insists on using a mix of polls and bowls to determine its champion rather than settling things with a playoff.
Auburn's hopes were based on this convoluted scenario: The Tigers defeat Virginia Tech, Oklahoma knocks off USC in an ugly Orange Bowl and enough voters in The Associated Press media poll picks Auburn as the No. 1 team, creating a split championship.
The winner of the Orange Bowl is assured of being voted No. 1 in the coaches' poll. But the AP rankings aren't tied to the BCS.
Last season, USC was voted No. 1 by the AP after winning the Rose Bowl, while LSU won the BCS title by beating Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
The overlooked Hokies hurt themselves with two major miscues. Jesse Allen dropped a sure touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal at the 1 midway through the second quarter. Then, Brandon Pace yanked a 23-yard field goal just left of the upright early in the fourth.
"Well we played hard, we just didn't play well enough," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
Carnell Williams, half of Auburn's heralded running back duo, was held to 61 yards rushing. He also fumbled in the fourth quarter when the Tigers, leading 16-0, were driving for the touchdown that could have made the victory a lot more convincing.
Auburn had a chance to blow it open in the first half, too, but went 0-for-3 from inside the Virginia Tech 10. The Tigers had to settle for three short field goals by Vaughn, who connected from 23, 19 and 24 yards for a 9-0 lead at halftime.
After taking the second-half kickoff, Auburn finally drove all the way to the end zone. The biggest play was a third-and-16, when Campbell scrambled near the Virginia Tech sideline and spotted Anthony Mix breaking open, connecting with him on a 53-yard pass.
Then, on third-and-2 from the Virginia Tech 5, Campbell froze the linebackers with play-action and hit Devin Aromashodu on a quick slant over the middle for Auburn's first TD.
"It was a defensive battle," Tuberville said.
That wasn't surprising. Auburn gave up fewer points per game than any team in the country, Virginia Tech was just two spots behind in the national rankings.
The Tigers got off to a roaring start as Campbell threw a 35-yard pass to Cooper Wallace on Auburn's first offensive play, then Ronnie Brown broke off a 31-yard run on the next snap. But the Tigers bogged down at the 5, settling for Vaughn's first field goal.
That would set the tone. Auburn drove inside the 10 on two more possessions, but the Hokies bucked up to keep the Tigers out of the end zone. Vaughn connected two more times from chip-shot range, tying the Sugar Bowl record for field goals in a half.
Trailing 6-0, Virginia Tech squandered its lone chance to seize the lead. Randall connected with Josh Hyman on a 31-yard completion, giving the Hokies first-and-goal at the Auburn 2.
Mike Imoh was stopped for no gain and Randall threw an incompletion. Randall got just inside the 1 on a third-down run, and the Hokies decided to go for the TD rather than settle for a field goal.
Virginia Tech called the right play -- Randall faked a handoff to Imoh and flipped a pass to Allen, normally a blocker who had slipped free out of the backfield.
But the ball skidded right through his hands, giving possession back to Auburn.
The Tigers then drove 92 yards to set up Vaughn's third field goal, drawing a disgusted reaction from Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. He ripped off his cap in anger after watching Auburn drive nearly the length of the field.