Nov. 10, 2013
Chris Davis breaks away on an 85-yard punt return against Tennessee on Saturday (Todd Van Emst photo)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Auburn senior Chris Davis offered an appetizer on Tennessee's first punt Saturday at Neyland Stadium. He returned it 41 yards to set up Auburn's first touchdown in a 55-23 romp.
On his next chance, Davis dropped the ball. He quickly picked it up, made two Vols miss and turned on the speed. He followed a convoy of blockers down the sideline 85 yards for a touchdown.
"I saw that I still had time to pick it up and run with it," Davis said. "Punt returners are going to drop the ball sometimes. You see it happen in the league, and you still have a chance to take it to the house."
And take it he did.
Davis, who is also a starting cornerback and a leader in the secondary, did not return another punt Saturday. But the return fun was just getting started.
After Tennessee cut Auburn's lead to 27-20 on an interception return with 1:28 left in the first half, Quan Bray returned the ensuing kickoff 34 yards to the Tennessee 45. One play later, quarterback Nick Marshall ran 38 yards for a touchdown.
Speedster Corey Grant got his chance on the second-half kickoff. He gathered in the kick at the 10-yard line, reversed field and was gone, 90 yards for a touchdown. Also gone were Tennessee hopes of an upset.
"We had some great blocking," Grant said. "I saw were the defense overpursued on one side, so I just cut it back and there was the touchdown."
And that touchdown made some history. It was the first time Auburn had returned a punted and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same game.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn praised special teams coach Scott Fountain.
"Coach Fountain and his staff have done a great job," Malzahn said. "We have one of the better kickers (Cody Parkey) in college football, we have one of the better punters (Steven Clark) in college football, now we're starting to get our return game right. Guys are starting to do their assignments. If we can continue to improve in that area it will really help us."
Learning on the road
Auburn played itself out of the game quickly in its only loss of the season. That's when LSU took a 21-0 halftime lead and won 35-21. But Gus Malzahn said Auburn may have learned something along the way.
"The first quarter, we were on the verge of being terrible against LSU and I think everybody saw that," he said. "After that first quarter we played pretty good football on the road. This is the toughest conference in the country, especially on the road so we're glad the road is behind us."
After LSU, Auburn won at Texas A&M 45-41, at Arkansas 35-17 and at Tennessee 55-23. Auburn's final two regular-season games against Georgia and Alabama are on the road.
Big game for Cassanova McKinzy
Sophomore Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy had one of the better games of his Auburn career Saturday. McKinzy led the Tigers with 10 tackles and had 1 ½ tackles for loss.
Safety Ryan Smith had eight tackles and safety Ryan White six. True freshman defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel had sacks.
Star Robenson Therezie snagged his fourth interception of the season and was in on four tackles.
Jones says talent, scheme make Auburn tough to handle
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said Malzahn's offensive scheme and talented players to run it are a difficult mix for defenses.
"I think it is a combination of both," Jones said. "They have some very talented football players. Nick Marshall is dynamic. I said it in here on Monday. They have great running backs. They are physical. They have great team speed on defense. They are a top 10 opponent.
"I think what they do schematically challenges you. They do a great job of being in the bunch sets and tight formations. Everything in offensive football today is about creating space and one-on-one match ups. They create those matchups a little different than your four- and five-wideout offenses. The do it with extra pullers on the edge or double-teaming the 3-technique or running counter schemes with the quarterback."
Auburn defense is tough in the red zone again
Five times Saturday, Tennessee had the ball at Auburn's 27-yard line or closer. And the Vols managed just one touchdown off Auburn's defense.
"That's kind of been our MO all year," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "Our defense has really risen up. Once we get in the red zone, we're one of the better defenses in college football. That's been a big factor, and I think vice-versa on the other side of the football."