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Tigers win ugly over Vols

AUBURN — Prior to its 14-12 loss to Auburn on Saturday, the Tennessee football team circled the Auburn logo at midfield, joined hands and prayed.

When a team has struggled to the extent the Volunteers have this season, turning to a higher power is understandable.

The prayers almost worked. But as the old saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

“It goes without saying that it was a very disappointing loss,” said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. “I think the defense played outstanding for most of the afternoon. Offensively, we were stuck.”

As lackluster as Auburn’s offense was — 226 total yards, 97 total yards rushing and only seven offensive points — the Vols were worse.

Tennessee finished the day with only 191 total yards despite starting four of their last six drives on the Auburn side of the field.

“It was a good win . . . a great win,” said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. “It was a win over a good team. Their backs were to the wall like ours. The defense obviously rose to the occasion. We all know that wasn’t a pretty game, but it’s going to get better.

“There are a lot of good players on this team and a lot of heart. We can win a lot of games if we continue to play like that.”

The Tigers (4-1) ended the first quarter with five first downs and 86 total yards, in addition to their lone offensive score of the game.

Chris Todd hit Robert Dunn for an 18-yard touchdown pass to cap a 12-play, 69-yard drive.

The Vols (1-3) responded in the second quarter by driving 39 yards to the Auburn 30. But the drive stalled, and Tennessee settled for a 47-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal.

On its next possession, Tennessee inched closer to the Tigers’ lead. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton guided the Vols 61 yards to the Auburn 18. But the drive petered out again, and Vols settled for a 35-yard Lincoln field goal to cut the lead to 7-6.

Tennessee should have prayed for a more inattentive Auburn defense.

After Tiger punter Clinton Durst pinned the Vols at their 5-yard line, Crompton and running back Arian Foster bobbled an exchange, and Auburn defensive lineman Jake Ricks fell on it in the end zone to put Auburn up 14-6.

“Coach Tuberville told us that we had to stop the run, and fortunately, they turned over the ball,” said Ricks. “It was just like one of our drills from practice, except that this time, it ended up as a touchdown.”

The play swung the momentum to Auburn, and the Tigers took control.

“From what the guys saw on TV, they said Arian had his elbow up too high,” said Fulmer. “Obviously that was a huge play in the game.”

But if there is one constant in college football, it is that momentum can turn on a dime.

Todd drove the Tigers from the Auburn 2 to the Tennessee 44, but the drive ended when he hit Tennessee defensive back Dennis Rogan in the hands and Rogan returned the pick 38 yards to the Auburn 37.

Ten plays later, running back Montario Hardesty opened the fourth quarter by cutting the score to 14-12 with a 2-yard touchdown run.

The Vols tried for the 2-point conversion, but Tiger defensive backs Walter McFadden and Jerraud Powers corralled Vol wide receiver Gerald Jones at the 2-yard line, essentially sealing he win.

The Vols had four possessions — including two that began inside Auburn territory — but could only muster 12 yards on 12 plays.

Still, despite being down two points with only three minutes remaining, Fulmer elected to rely on his defense one more time.

The Tigers had only managed 15 yards on 13 plays in the fourth quarter and drew boos from the Jordan-Hare crowd on four occasions.

But Tiger quarterback Kodi Burns hit Montez Billings for a 10-yard gain to convert a third-and-5 situation, and then kneeled the clock out to seal the win.