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September 27, 2008Jake Ricks recovered a fumble in the end zone and No. 15 Auburn sent Tennessee to its worst start in 14 years with a 14-12 victory Saturday.
The Vols (1-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) fell to 1-3 for the first time since 1994, the second full season for embattled coach Phillip Fulmer.
Auburn's anemic offense, which only produced 226 yards a week after a last-minute loss to LSU, was bailed out when Ricks recovered a fumble in the end zone for the 14-6 lead in the second quarter after a botched handoff to Arian Foster.
Tennessee closed to within two, but Auburn backup quarterback Kodi Burns did just enough to preserve the win. His 10-yard pass to Montez Billings late in the game on third-and-5 produced a first down and enabled the Tigers (4-1, 2-1) to kneel on consecutive plays with the Volunteers having used up their final two timeouts.
With both offenses struggling, the Vols' best weapon in the second half might have been punter Chad Cunningham. He buried Auburn's sputtering offense inside the 5 three times, the last one with 2:59 left.
Two straight runs and an offensive penalty left it looking like Tennessee might get another chance before Burns hit Billings on the right sideline. It capped an offensive performance that drew plenty of boos from the fans in the fourth quarter, and didn't exactly end what might be a brewing quarterback controversy with Burns and Chris Todd.
Fulmer had come under increasing heat this week following a 30-6 loss to No. 4 Florida. He struck back early in the week with a pointed reference to past successes: "We didn't all of a sudden get stupid as coaches." A follow-up performance for an offense that produced just 191 yards, including an 8-for-23, 67-yard passing effort for Jonathan Crompton that included a failed two-point conversion didn't help public perception.
The Vols were still trailing by that score when Dennis Rogan intercepted Todd's downfield pass and returned it 38 yards to Auburn's 37. Crompton ran 15 yards on third-and-14 after the drive appeared poised to quickly stall, and Tennessee also capitalized on a facemask penalty.
Montario Hardesty carried three straight times for the final 6 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter. Tennessee went for a two-point conversion and the tie but Walter McFadden stopped receiver Gerald Jones shy of the end zone.
The Vols failed to score on two more possessions that started across midfield in the fourth quarter, including one set up by Jones' 40-yard punt return.
Auburn fans offered one of their biggest cheers when Burns replaced Todd with 5:59 left. Burns, who hadn't played in the past two games, wound up losing 2 yards on three straight quarterback keepers.
Todd was 14-of-23 for 93 yards with a touchdown pass; Burns 4-for-6 for 36 yards. He also gained 16 yards on eight carries and moved Auburn into field goal range on his first series, though Wes Byrum missed a 35-yarder
Neither running game ever got going for a second straight week, either.
Foster was held to 35 yards on 10 carries for Tennessee. Ben Tate managed 70 yards on 19 carries for the Tigers.
Daniel Lincoln kicked field goals of 47 and 35 yards in the second quarter for Tennessee.
Auburn tailback Brad Lester (sprained knee) and linebacker Tray Blackmon (wrist) didn't play in the game.