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Auburn running back Brad Lester  dives into the end zone in the second quarter in the Tigers’ 35-7 win over Vanderbilt in Auburn on Saturday. Chasing Lester are Vandy’s Curtis Gatewood (48) and Jonathan Goff (47).
AP photo by John Bazemore
Auburn running back Brad Lester dives into the end zone in the second quarter in the Tigers’ 35-7 win over Vanderbilt in Auburn on Saturday. Chasing Lester are Vandy’s Curtis Gatewood (48) and Jonathan Goff (47).

AU gets
its groove back

Tigers’ offense bosses Commodores, rolling up yards, scoring early in win

By Ross Dellenger
sports@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

AUBURN — Hurried out of the pocket with defenders clawing at his feet, quarterback Brandon Cox casually flipped the ball to running back Mario Fannin, who stood just a few feet in front of him.

Fannin cradled the football into his chest and dashed down the field for an 8-yard gain.

It wasn’t a game-changing play by any means. It didn’t score any points or even get a first down. But just a month ago, it never would have happened.

A month ago, it would have ended with Cox getting planted into the ground for a thunderous sack.

Not now. Not anymore.

Auburn’s offense rolled for the third straight week, scoring touchdowns on four of its first six possessions en route to a 35-7 win over Vanderbilt at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“Our goal was just to continue what we were doing last week,” Cox said. “We hadn’t done that early in the season.”

A lackluster offense sent Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC) into a tailspin to start the season. After dropping home games to South Florida and Mississippi State, the Tigers looked as if they were destined for their first losing season in nearly a decade.

But a once-struggling offense finally hit its groove, leading to a current three-game winning streak and placing Auburn back into the SEC West hunt with back-to-back road games at Arkansas and LSU awaiting.

So what is behind this magical turnaround?

“Brandon is obviously playing better,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said shortly after the win. “Your quarterback is a very important part of your team.”

Once an outcast, booed off his home field and yanked from the starting lineup, Cox followed a puzzling first three games with three gems. Against Florida last week, he completed his first five passes. He topped that Saturday, hitting his first seven.

He showed elusiveness in the pocket, escaping and making plays. The senior from Birmingham finished with 165 yards and completed 82 percent of his passes, completing 14 of 17 attempts.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges attributed Cox’s scrambling success to a restructured offensive line. Coaches shuffled the line around after the loss to Mississippi State. Since then, the team is undefeated. Cox was sacked nine times in the first three games, but was sacked once Saturday.

“Our offensive line is giving him a chance to do that,” said Borges, who along with Cox took some harsh criticism after dismal offensive performances produced a 1-2 start.

“As a quarterback you can be a little more elusive if you have a chance to escape. If you get back to the drop point and there’s people all over you, nobody is going to escape.”

The return of starting running back Brad Lester and a bruising Auburn running game allowed Cox to be so successful on play-action passes Saturday. Lester, Ben Tate and Fannin combined for 227 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

A junior, Lester ended a six-game suspension Saturday, running for 77 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

The first came with 3:30 left in the second quarter when he fended off tacklers for a 17-yard run into the end zone, giving Auburn a 28-0 lead.

Vanderbilt’s defense entered Saturday’s game ranked second in the SEC, behind only No. 1-ranked LSU. But it was quickly stunned with a flurry of points early.

“They just caught a pretty good football team getting better and making improvement,” Tuberville said.

The Tigers racked up 324 yards by halftime. That’s more yards than Auburn compiled in its first three games of the season. Finally, Auburn’s offense capitalized on a stingy defense.

The Commodores followed a 35-yard opening drive with four straight series without a first down. Auburn scored a touchdown after three of those punts.

Tate’s 3-yard touchdown run with 7:02 left in the first quarter capped an 80-yard, nine-play opening drive.

An unexpected catch by tight end Tommy Trott set up the Tigers inside the Vanderbilt 15-yard line with a 16-yard gain.

“We’re catching the ball better,” Borges said. “The first four weeks our throw and catch was abysmal.”

A 44-yard run by Tate moved Auburn to the Vandy 26. On a third-and-goal from the two, Cox rolled out of the pocket and found receiver Rod Smith, making the score 14-0 with late in the opening quarter.

After Cox’s 8-yard forward pitch to Fannin, the freshman running back scored from 22 yards out to make it 21-0 with almost the entire second quarter to play.

“We always harp on starting fast,” said Fannin, who finished with 54 yards. “When you start off fast, you get their defense down and chase some of the motivation away. It just turns the game around.”

Cornerback Pat Lee intercepted a tipped pass early in the third quarter and returned it to the Vanderbilt 10-yard line. Lester flopped across the goal line from 5 yards out two plays later, making it 35-0.

Vanderbilt compiled a 15-play, 91-yard drive against Auburn’s reserve defenders late in the game. With 4:57 remaining, running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison scored from a yard out to give the Commodores their only touchdown of the game.

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