BY STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Auburn doesn’t have to worry about passing to remain in the running for a Southeastern Conference title.
Nick Marshall rushed for 214 of Auburn’s 444 yards Saturday as the seventh-ranked Tigers needed just nine pass attempts to roll to a 55-23 victory over Tennessee. Auburn also scored on a kickoff return and a punt return – the first time the Tigers have ever done both in the same game — and set an NCAA single-game record by averaging 44.85 yards on seven combined kickoff and punt returns.
“I still believe we can throw the football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we can, but when you don’t have to, you don’t.”
Auburn had attempted just nine passes last week in a 35-17 victory over Arkansas. Marshall’s third and final pass completion Saturday was a 25-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 6:36 remaining in the first quarter as the Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) earned their sixth straight win to remain in control of their destiny in the SEC Western Division race.
Marshall ran for two touchdowns on just 14 carries and threw for a third score. Tre Mason rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns as Auburn averaged 8.4 yards per carry and had the most yards rushing by a Tennessee opponent since Alabama ran for 457 in a 56-28 victory over the Volunteers in 1986.
“They couldn’t really stop the run, so we just kept our foot on their throat and just ran it down their throat,” Marshall said.
Chris Davis put Auburn ahead for good and broke a 13-all tie in the second quarter with an 85-yard punt return, Auburn’s longest since 1970 and the third-longest in school history. Corey Grant returned the second-half kickoff 90 yards for another Auburn touchdown.
According to Auburn’s sports information department, the Tigers’ average of 44.85 yards on seven combined kickoff and punt returns set an NCAA single-game record, breaking the previous mark of 41.8 per return set by Florida State in a 56-21 loss to Virginia Tech in 1974.
“We’ve got one of the best kickers in college football, one of the best punters in college football,” Malzahn said. “Now we’re starting to get the return game right.”
Rajion Neal rushed for 124 yards and Michael Palardy kicked three field goals for Tennessee (4-6, 1-5), which dropped its third straight game.
The Vols must win the rest of their games to become bowl eligible and avoid their fourth consecutive losing season. Tennessee hosts Vanderbilt on Nov. 23 and closes the regular season Nov. 30 at Kentucky. Tennessee hasn’t had four straight losing seasons since 1903-06.
“This senior class now, they’re going to be defined by how they finish,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “How do they finish their careers?”
Tennessee was playing its fifth straight opponent ranked 11th or higher and was facing a ranked foe for the seventh time in eight games. According to STATS LLC, Tennessee is the first team since Pittsburgh in 1993 to play seven ranked teams in an eight-game stretch within the same season.
Auburn entered the day leading the SEC with 306.2 yards rushing, 69 more than anyone else in the league. Tennessee was allowing 5.1 yards per carry and a league-high 201.7 yards rushing per game.
Both trends continued Saturday. Every time Tennessee seized the momentum, Auburn regained control by running the ball.
“Our mindset is to score every time we touch the ball,” Mason said. “We believe. And when you believe, you can achieve.”
After Neal broke at least three tackles on a spectacular 17-yard touchdown run in the first play of the second quarter to put the Vols ahead 13-6, Auburn tied the game less than a minute later on a two-play, 75-yard drive. Marshall started the drive with a 62-yard keeper and Mason followed by running 13 yards around the left end without getting touched.
Marshall made a rare mistake when he threw an interception that Jacques Smith returned 18 yards for a touchdown that cut Auburn’s lead to 27-20 with 1:28 left in the half, but the quarterback redeemed himself 37 seconds later by racing 38 yards around the left end untouched for a touchdown that restored Auburn’s 14-point advantage.
“Even when we had individuals in position, we couldn’t get him down,” Jones said.
Tennessee also couldn’t slow down Auburn’s returners.
The Vols entered the day ranked 27th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in punt coverage, but they gave up two long punt returns Saturday. Davis fumbled one punt at the Auburn 15, then picked the ball up and raced down the left sideline for an 85-yard touchdown. Davis also had a 42-yard punt return that led to Auburn’s first touchdown of the game.
Mason set up Auburn’s final touchdown of the first half by returning a kickoff to the Tennessee 45. Grant extended the Tigers’ lead to 41-20 with his 90-yard kickoff return that opened the second half.
Tennessee never threatened again.