AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Visor-wearing innovators Steve Spurrier and Gus Malzahn engaged in a chess match. South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson and No. 5 Auburn’s Nick Marshall swapped big plays.
The two compelling duels weren’t settled until the final play in the Tigers’ 42-35 victory over Spurrier’s gambling Gamecocks on Saturday night.
Marshall ran for three touchdowns and passed for another score and Jonathan Jones picked off two fourth-quarter passes in the end zone, including the game-ender.
The Tigers (6-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) finally stopped the onslaught of Spurrier, Thompson and their fourth-down magic late in the game.
“They went for everything and they got just about everything,” said Auburn’s Malzahn, who picked up the visor habit watching Spurrier at Florida. “They executed when they had to and they did it time and time again.
“That’s the reason it was a close game. That’s the reason it went down to the end.”
Auburn burned off four-plus minutes from the clock after the first unsuccessful gamble before the Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4) made a stop at midfield for one more shot.
Thompson, who threw five touchdown passes and helped convert five straight fourth-down tries, took over at his own 15 with no timeouts and 1:08 left. Jones, who also had two interceptions in a loss to No. 1 Mississippi State two weeks ago, made the clinching pick on Thompson’s last-play heave to preserve the Tigers’ SEC and national title hopes.
Spurrier said he would have gone for two points and the victory if the Gamecocks had scored instead of kicking for overtime.
“If we catch the Hail Mary and we make a two-point conversion that might have been the greatest win in my entire life,” Spurrier said. “If it had worked out. It was just a close loss. I thought maybe something good was going to happen, but they picked it off.”
The Gamecocks, 18-point underdogs, converted an onside kick and four fourth-down plays in their own territory.
Spurrier finally busted on his last gamble. Thompson threw an incompletion on fourth and 14 from Auburn’s 19 that gave the Tigers the ball back with 5:28 left.
The Gamecocks got another chance, and moved into Auburn territory with a completion and personal foul against Jonathon Mincy. Then Thompson threw one final pass into a crowd of players from both teams, and Jones came down with it.
Thompson also had a pick in the end zone early in the fourth when he was drilled by Gabe Wright as he threw.
Auburn tied Florida State for the longest active streak with 14 straight home wins. South Carolina has lost three consecutive SEC games for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.
Marshall ran for 89 yards and completed 12 of 14 passes for 139 yards. He scored on a 37-yard sprint and on runs of 4 and 9 yards and said it was his best game of the season.
“Coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a shootout,” Marshall said. “We knew we were going to get South Carolina’s best effort on the defensive and offensive side.”
Cameron Artis-Payne gained 167 yards on 25 carries as Auburn’s punishing running game countered South Carolina’s prolific passing. Receiver Ricardo Louis ran for 102 yards and raced to a 75-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter.
Thompson was 29-of-51 passing for 402 yards but was also intercepted three times beyond or near the goal line. It was the most passing yards by a South Carolina quarterback since Steve Taneyhill threw for 473 yards against Mississippi State in 1995.
Pharoh Cooper caught two of his touchdown throws and had 127 yards on seven catches.
“We almost did it,” Spurrier said. “We didn’t quite make it but we messed up in the red zone a couple of times. We got the onside kick.
“It gave us a fighting chance.”
It was quite a match between Spurrier and Malzahn and their differing styles. Both had their quarterbacks catch passes for first downs, and both stuck to what they do best.
Auburn racked up 551 yards, 395 on the ground. South Carolina had 416 of its 535 yards through the air.
The difference: Auburn scored four touchdowns on trips inside South Carolina’s 20-yard line. The Gamecocks were 2 of 5 with the three picks keeping them out of the end zone.
“Their coach is one of the better coaches to ever walk the sidelines,” Malzahn said. “I think everybody saw that with the fourth-down calls and the onside kick. But at the end of the day our guys found a way to win. Our defense didn’t play their best but at the very end they came through.”
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