Barrett Trotter and the Tigers escaped with a win Saturday night against lowly FAU, 30-14.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Needing a spark to hold off an upset bid by winless Florida Atlantic, defending national champion Auburn got it from the most unlikely of places: the defense.
Interceptions by Jermaine Whitehead and Neiko Thorpe in the third quarter both led to scores and turned a tight game into a 30-14 Auburn win.
With the Tigers (3-1) leading by just four, Whitehead stepped in front of a Graham Wilbert pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown just 1:26 into the second half to give Auburn a 17-6 lead.
"I think it was really big," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "The timing was big. Again, that was something I felt like we needed just because we were struggling so much offensively."
After Onterio McCalebb took a Barrett Trotter screen pass 51 yards for a touchdown several minutes later, Thorpe intercepted another Wilbert pass and returned it 46 yards to the 19 of Florida Atlantic (0-3) midway through the third quarter, setting up a Cody Parkey 31-yard field goal.
The interceptions aided an Auburn offense that struggled to find a rhythm throughout, amassing just 315 yards against an Owls defense that came into the game giving up an average of 451.
"I just don't think all the way around, when you are talking about the running game, whether you are talking about protecting the quarterback, I thought it was a very below-average football game all the way around from the beginning to the end (offensively), and it never got better," Chizik said. "So we have to go back and really look at some things. . It just wasn't a very good performance all the way around ."
"We've got to find a way to get out of (the rut)," Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. ". We're a rhythm offense. When we're in a rhythm we're pretty good, and when we're not, we're not very good. There was no rhythm tonight."
The Auburn defense, which gave up 624 yards at Clemson last week in a loss that snapped the Tigers' 17-game winning streak, seemed set for more struggles throughout the first half. The Owls moved the ball at will at times, managing 153 yards and six first downs, both significantly more than they managed all game in a 44-0 loss at Michigan State two weeks ago. However, the Owls saw several drives stall out inside Auburn territory, and settled for two Vinny Zaccario field goals.
"This was an exercise for a developing team to rise up on several occasions and look very good," Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "So, there is hope and more belief, and we can build on that."
Florida Atlantic managed its first touchdown of the year midway through the fourth quarter against Auburn's reserves on a 12-yard screen pass from Wilbert to Alfred Morris, but saw two other drives come up empty in Tiger territory.
"I absolutely saw some progress," Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "I thought we played well for most of the football game. I thought we were improved. That was the goal."
"We put some drives together and got some points on the board," Morris said. "We did a lot of things we can build on but also saw things we need to correct. This was the first game this year we actually did what we wanted to offensively."
It was a subdued atmosphere at Jordan-Hare Stadium, possibly due to the aftermath of the Tigers' first loss in two years and certainly due to the team's struggles in the first half. The attendance was announced as 82,345, but several sections in the upper deck were half empty. And during a particularly bad stretch for the offense late in the first half, boos could be heard from the student section.
Trotter, trying to fill the shoes of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, had an uneven night. He was picked off by the Owls' Cory Henry on the first play from scrimmage and finished 16-of-28 for 178 yards with two touchdowns and the interception. He also spent a good deal of the night under pressure.
"At times I felt like Barrett was running for his life tonight," Chizik said.
Florida Atlantic, which entered Saturday averaging only 92.5 yards per game, finished the night with 307.
Morris led the Owls with 85 yards on 15 carries and 43 yards receiving with the touchdown. Wilbert finished 20-for-31 passing for 191 yards, but threw three interceptions.
Auburn now begins a tough stretch of SEC play, traveling to South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU with a home date against Florida sandwiched in the middle.
"It's going to be an extremely tall order," Chizik said. "We're going to go in and next week's going to be South Carolina, and that is all we are going to be focused on for the next six days."
"It's nothing new. We're in the SEC," said Emory Blake, who caught a touchdown pass in his seventh straight game. "We have a tough schedule. But we're a tough team. This is what we do."