AUBURN, AL (AP) – Interceptions by Jermaine Whitehead and Neiko Thorpe led to third-quarter scores that helped Auburn stamp out a Florida Atlantic upset bid 30-14 on Saturday night.
With the Tigers (3-1) leading by just four points, Whitehead stepped in front of a Graham Wilbert pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown and a 17-6 Auburn lead 1:26 into the second half.
After Onterio McCalebb took a Barrett Trotter screen pass 51 yards for an Auburn touchdown 5:27 later, Thorpe intercepted another Wilbert pass on the next scrimmage play for Florida Atlantic (0-3) and returned it 46 yards to the Owls’ 19, setting up a 31-yard field goal by Cody Parkey.
The Auburn defense, which gave up 624 yards at Clemson last week in a loss that snapped the defending national champions’ 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.
Florida Atlantic, which entered Saturday averaging only 92.5 yards per game, finished the night with 307. It also managed its first touchdown of the year midway through the fourth quarter, a 12-yard screen pass from Wilbert to Alfred Morris, but that score came after Auburn sat most of its starters.
Auburn’s offense managed only 315 yards.
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.
It was the defense, surprisingly, that kept coming through for Auburn on Saturday night.
Trotter was picked off by the Owls’ Cory Henry on the first play from scrimmage, setting up Florida Atlantic at the Auburn 35-yard line. After a first down, FAU was forced to settle for the first of Zaccario’s field goals, this one from 39 yards.
Florida Atlantic drove into Auburn territory five times in the game but came away with only three scores. Auburn’s defense forced three turnovers on the night, all interceptions of Wilbert.
Trotter, trying to fill the shoes of Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, had an uneven night, finishing 16-of-28 for 178 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, but he spent much of the night scrambling due to suspect blocking from his young offensive line.
The Tigers also failed to run the ball effectively. Sophomore Michael Dyer managed only 68 yards on 14 carries to lead the Tiger attack.
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.