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Special teams key Auburn's blowout of Vols

Auburn Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall (14) passes the ball against the Tennessee Volunteers during Saturday's game.

Auburn Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall (14) passes the ball against the Tennessee Volunteers during Saturday's game.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Auburn got into the open field and Tennessee couldn't catch up.

The No. 7 Tigers racked up 444 rushing yards and got both a kick return and punt return touchdown to roll to a 55-23 victory over the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

Quarterback Nick Marshall had 214 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while running back Tre Mason had 117 yards and three more scores. Chris Davis returned a punt return 85 yards for a first-half touchdown and Corey Grant added a 90-yard kick return touchdown to start the second half.

"I was real proud of our special teams," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "Two special-teams touchdowns; there were momentum plays that helped turn the game around."

Running back Rajion Neal had 124 yards rushing and a touchdown for the Volunteers while freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs was 16 of 25 for 128 yards and an interception.

Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC) actually led twice in the first half but struggled to contain the SEC's best ground attack. The Tigers (9-1, 5-1) scored on quick sprints, with three drives taking less than 40 seconds to go along with the two scores on special teams. Davis also had a 42-yard punt return that set up the Tigers' first touchdown.

All of that open field swallowed the Vols after a decent start in front of a homecoming crowd of 102,455. Dobbs set up the first of Michael Palardy's three field goals with a 30-yard bomb to wide receiver Marquez North on the first possession of the game.

Tennessee led 13-6 after Rajion Neal (11 carries, 69 yards) looked like an Auburn rusher, bursting through a pile of defenders for a 17-yard touchdown.

But Marshall got loose on the very first play of the next drive, sprinting through a hole in the middle 62 yards to the Tennessee 13. Mason ran in for the touchdown on the next play.

"(Marshall)'s a great athlete," Malzahn said. "He's starting to understand the offense. He's making the right decisions, and when he gets the ball out in space he can really do some things."

Less than five minutes later, Davis returned Palardy's punt 85 yards for a touchdown, the third-longest punt return in school history and the longest Auburn has had since 1970.

"Auburn special teams are very good," Palardy said. "They have good returners, as you guys saw. They made plays. We knew that they could make plays. It's a matter of us making plays and being able to make tackles. Having leverage on the ball, that's something we're going to have to assess when we go in to watch film."

Tennessee found itself in chase mode again on the next drive. Running back Corey Grant and Marshall got back-to-back gains over 20 yards to start the drive. Marshall picked up 42 yards on the six-play, 85-yard drive, including a 7-yard touchdown run that made it 27-13.

"It's players getting off blocks and making a play in space," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I think you all saw the speed differential out there."

Tennessee pulled within 27-20 with an 18-yard pick-6 from defensive lineman Jacques Smith in the final two minutes of the first half, but Auburn had a decisive response. Another big kick return, this time from Mason, set the Tigers up before Marshall ran in from 38 yards out for a touchdown on a two-play drive.

"That was momentum," Malzahn said. "They had all the momentum and the place was going crazy, and we came back and answered, and that was really a big plus."

The hole just got bigger after halftime. Grant started the half with that kick-return score and Auburn got Mason two more scores on lengthy drives of eight and 12 plays.

Auburn's first touchdown of the day erased a 3-0 Tennessee lead. It started with Davis' first big punt return, a 42-yard run that set Marshall and the offense up at the Tennessee 22. Marshall connected with tight end C.J. Uzomah on the second play of the drive for a touchdown, but Cody Parkey's extra-point attempt was blocked.

The Vols came back with 10 straight points to take a 13-6 lead before Auburn broke free.

"We kind of saw how they were playing us, what they were giving us, what they were taking away," Malzahn said. "Coach (Rhett) Lashlee and his staff did a really good job with adjustments, and we were able to run the ball and get some momentum. And any time we get some first downs and we're able to pace, that's kind of when we're at our best, and that's what happened in the second quarter."

NOTES: Michael Palardy's field goal was Tennessee's first opening-drive score since a touchdown drive against Austin Peay on Aug. 31. ... Auburn has won 85 consecutive games when scoring 30 points or more. ... Saturday's game was Tennessee's homecoming. It snapped a four-game homecoming winning streak for the Vols, dating back to 2009. Tennessee is 27-3 on homecoming since 1984. ... Auburn RB Tre Mason has a touchdown in the last seven games. ... Chris Davis' 85-yard punt return touchdown was the third-longest return in Auburn history and the school's longest since 1970. It was the Tigers' first punt return score since 2008. ... The Volunteers still haven't beaten an AP top-10 team since 2006, a stretch of 19 games. The Vols' last win over an AP top-10 was a 51-33 win at No. 10 Georgia. ... Auburn has won the last six games in this series. Tennessee's last win was a 24-0 victory on Oct. 2, 1999.