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Auburn’s Zach Gilbert walks off the field after the Tigers’ 26-23 overtime loss to South Florida.
AP photo by Mark Almond
Auburn’s Zach Gilbert walks off the field after the Tigers’ 26-23 overtime loss to South Florida.

Unhappy Tigers
Auburn deals with upset loss at home, struggling offense

By Ross Dellenger · 340-2462

AUBURN — Quentin Groves moped into the Auburn football interview room Sunday afternoon.

He mumbled a little bit upon entering

“What’s up, guys, what’s up?” he asked reporters before sitting in a black leather chair.

He slumped over and waited for the first question, his braided hair falling across drooping eyes.

The mood Sunday in Auburn’s athletic building was a far cry from the past month’s atmosphere. Normally, Groves enters for interviews yelling and screaming, sometimes even dancing.

But Auburn’s stunning 26-23 overtime loss to South Florida on Saturday night has put a damper on everything burnt orange and navy blue.

“Coaches and players, managers and trainers — everybody’s had their head down a little bit,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said Sunday. “The last few years, we’ve been able to finish games when we’ve gotten the lead late.”

Instead, after going up 20-17 on a Wes Byrum field goal with only seconds left, Auburn allowed a 59-yard kickoff return by the Bulls. After taking another lead with a Byrum field goal in overtime, the Tigers allowed a game-winning touchdown pass.

Although the defense allowed that last play, it was Auburn’s offense that failed to moved the ball consistently, especially in the second half.

The Tigers failed to score a touchdown in the game’s final 30 minutes and turned the ball over four times, bringing more criticism to a squad that ranks dead last in the Southeastern Conference with 290 yards a game. That’s nearly 30 yards short of 11th-place Mississippi State, which the Tigers face Saturday to open SEC play.

So, why can’t the Auburn offense move down the field?

According to offensive coordinator Al Borges, there are a variety of answers, including dropped passes, bad throws and, above all, turnovers.

“In the second half, we were just bad,” Borges said. “We kept turning the ball over. You’re never going to get in sync that way. That’s worse than not moving the ball, turning it over.”

Starting quarterback Brandon Cox was intercepted twice for the second straight week. And running back Mario Fannin fumbled on back-to-back carries.

Cox completed 16 of 35 passes for 165 yards. Borges said Cox is “playing behind the chains a lot,” trying to make a play when nothing is there.

“I’ve just got to take what they give me and try not to force things,” Cox said. “If it’s not there, don’t try to make something happen and go on.”

Even so, Auburn’s coaches have confidence in Cox, who has thrown 11 interceptions to eight touchdowns over his last seven starts.

“He’s made some obvious mistakes but you don’t just ditch a guy who’s won 20 games the last two years and a quarter,” Tuberville said. “You would hope things start clicking. Obviously, anybody is susceptible to having somebody else go in for him.”

And would that player be true freshman speedster Kodi Burns?

Tuberville said that is doubtful. He blames Cox’s poor play on opponents’ defenses shutting down the run, forcing the third-year starter to throw the ball.

“The way people are playing us, we’ve got to throw the ball,” he said. “And Kodi, being there is not going to get them off of us. Kodi doesn’t know the passing game as well as Brandon. His elusiveness will probably help a little bit. But you’re still going to have to throw it most of the time.”

When Borges was asked about Burns getting playing time, he said, “I wouldn’t commit one way or the other to that.”

Cox is not the only problem. Starting receiver Prechae Rodriguez, who led the team with six catches in the season opener, dropped two passes, one for a touchdown. Unlike the quarterback position, Auburn may make changes at receiver.

True freshman Chris Slaughter said he was rotating with Rodriguez during Sunday’s practice.

But there were some positives from the offense Saturday.

The running game kicked into gear with Fannin and Ben Tate, and the offensive line blocked better than last week.

But still, the offense must improve or there will be plenty more sad Sundays in Auburn.

“We know we have a pretty good defense. Our kicking game is coming around,” Tuberville said. “We just got one area that’s got to get better. If it doesn’t, obviously we’ll have to adjust that part.

Auburn Monday Playback

Three points Auburn should remember following its 26-23 overtime loss to SouthFlorida.

You’re still undefeated: Auburn hasn’t lost in the Southeastern Conference, so the most important goal — a league championship — is still very much within reach.

Cut the turnovers: More often than not in games between two teams from major conferences, the team with the fewer turnovers wins. On Saturday, Auburn lost the ball five times compared to zero for South Florida.

A young gun emerges: Freshman place-kicker Wes Byrum did awfully well in a pressure game, making all three of his field goal tries. He was good from 49, 46 and 39 yards.

Ross Dellenger

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