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August 30, 2008

Auburn goes ground in season-opening win

The Auburn Tigers unveiled their fancy new offense, then settled for winning the old-fashioned way.

Ben Tate ran for 115 yards on 13 carries and the 10th-ranked Tigers scored touchdowns on defense and special teams in a 34-0 opening victory over Louisiana-Monroe Saturday night.

Auburn scarcely needed to pass in debuting coordinator Tony Franklin's new spread offense, resorting to a still punishing ground game (321 yards rushing) and defense while alternating quarterbacks on every series for much of the game.

Like the fans, Franklin expected a better show.

"We stink, and it's my fault," he said. "I just did a really poor job coaching this week. I saw it about three days ago. The offense was ugly tonight."

Then again, the Tigers have mostly been winning ugly for years -- at least to aficionados of the passing game.

Michael Goggans scored on a 9-yard fumble return and Robert Dunn added a 66-yard punt return for a TD in the first quarter -- the latter breaking the nation's longest drought. It was more than enough to ensure that the Warhawks wouldn't duplicate last season's upset at Alabama, which had been only their third win in 33 tries against Southeastern Conference opponents.

Kodi Burns opened the game at quarterback in a decision coach Tommy Tuberville kept under wraps all week, but he headed to the locker room midway through the third quarter with a cut on his leg and didn't return. Burns' status for next week's game wasn't known.

Burns and Chris Todd combined for a paltry 28 yards passing in the first three quarters.

Burns completed 4 of 9 passes for 15 yards but ran for 69 yards and three long first downs. Todd was 9-for-18 for 70 yards with an interception and a 3-yard touchdown pass to Chris Slaughter in the fourth. The Tigers' longest pass play heading into that final quarter was 7 yards.

"We had stuff open and we didn't hit it, and that's what we've got to do," Todd said.

The running game remained the offensive forte. Tate had a 49-yard run while freshman Eric Smith gained 66 yards and Brad Lester finished with 52, including a 3-yard touchdown.

Tuberville's assessment was kinder than Franklin's own.

"We're going to have some growing pains with this offense," he said, "but any time you rush for 300 yards you've had a pretty good night."

The shutout remained intact after the Warhawks missed their second field goal with 50 seconds left.

The Tigers' big plays early came from defense and special teams.

Auburn scored when Antonio Coleman jarred the ball loose from quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster on the Warhawks' first offensive play. Coleman's fellow defensive end Goggans scooped it up for an easy touchdown.

"It's always a defensive lineman's dream to get a sack back there," Goggans said. "He was able to come around with a good press and I was able to scoop and score."

Added Coleman: "I've been thinking about that big hit to start off the season. I've even dreamed about it. I dreamed about it (Friday) night. That was the best way to start off a season."

Another good way: Dunn scampered up the middle to break the Tigers' 144-game, 12-year streak without scoring on a punt return. Every other Football Championship Subdivision team had returned one the distance since Auburn's last in 1996.

Dunn, a projected starter who was demoted to fourth-team receiver in Tuberville's self-described "doghouse" juked one defender, changed directions and won a foot race the rest of the way.

"He's digging his way out" of that doghouse, Tuberville said.

Auburn had not scored on special teams, offense and defense in a game since the 2003 meeting with Louisiana-Monroe.

Playing without starting receivers Darrell McNeal (suspension) and LaGregory Snapp (academics), the Warhawks managed just 220 total yards and were 2-of-18 on third downs. Lancaster passed for 136 yards and ran for 33.

"They capitalized on the mistakes we made early," ULM coach Charlie Weatherbie said. "Anytime you turn over the first offensive play, that makes it rough.

"They're a very good football team and I would say their defense is maybe as good as we've faced in the last couple of years."


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