Auburn turned in another ugly offensive performance.
This time, the No. 15 Tigers couldn’t pin it on their opponent.
In an inexcusable display of sloppiness, Auburn turned the ball over five times — four fumbles and an interception — but still managed to win only because it was going against an overmatched opponent. A 24-10 victory over FCS school Mercer on Saturday provided little reason to believe that coach Gus Malzahn’s team is ready to challenge Alabama’s dominance in the Southeastern Conference.
Kamryn Pettway ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns , while Jason Stidham completed 32 of 37 for 364 yards.
But this is not exactly what the Tigers (2-1) were looking for after being held without a touchdown in a 14-6 loss at third-ranked Clemson the previous week.
“Obviously, it was a little sloppy,” Malzahn said in quite an understatement. “It kind of snowballed on us.”
Mercer, which only resumed its football program five years ago and plays a division down in the Southern Conference, gave the Tigers all they could handle, much to a chagrin of a disgruntled crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium — many of whom didn’t bother returning to their seats after a lackluster first half in which the home team led only 10-3.
Auburn’s woes could be attributed largely to an inability to hold onto the ball. The Tigers lost three fumbles in the first half and another returning a punt on what should’ve been their first possession of the second half. Stidham was picked off when Kam Lott ripped the ball away from Nate Craig-Myers , a lackluster effort by the intended receiver that symbolized the entire afternoon.
The Bears (1-2) fell behind 17-3 on Pettway’s second TD, a 9-yard run midway through the third quarter. But the private school from Macon, Georgia made things interesting with its only drive of any significance in the game. Mercer pushed 83 yards in 12 plays, capped by Kaelan Riley’s 7-yard scoring pass to Marquise Irvin with just less than 14 minutes to go.
Even when the Tigers managed to keep possession of the ball, they couldn’t help but shoot themselves in the foot. After Riley’s TD pass, Auburn drove downfield for what should have been a decisive score. But two holding penalties and an unsportsmanlike conduct kept the Tigers from reaching the end zone, and normally dependable kicker Daniel Carlson hooked a chip-shot attempt from 26 yards to keep Mercer within range of a massive upset.
The Bears couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity. Auburn finally put the game away with Pettway’s third TD — a 4-yard run with 4:50 remaining.
But the Tigers were more relieved than excited when this one ended.
“A few mistakes here and there, but a tremendous effort,” Mercer coach Bobby Lamb said. “I can’t be more proud of a football team for coming into a place like this and playing the way we did.”
Mercer: The Bears left the field to a rousing ovation from those who made the short trip from Macon. With good reason. They avoided what everyone expected to be a blowout in their first game against a nationally ranked FBS or SEC team since returning to the gridiron in 2013.
Auburn: The Tigers have a lot of work to do offensively, despite piling up a 510-245 lead in total yards. All those turnovers can’t be ignored, six penalties were another reason for concern, and the running game must improve as well. They were held to 146 yards on 43 carries, an average of just 3.4 yards.
There was a scary moment in the second quarter . Auburn right tackle Darius James was carted off the field on a stretcher after being injured on what appeared to be a routine, 3-yard run by Pettway.
When James went down, teammate Mike Horton landed on his back. The 324-pound senior remained sprawled out on the turf, face down and showing no movement while being treated.
James’ neck was stabilized and he was flipped over gently onto a backboard before being lifted onto the stretcher.
James had feeling in his extremities when he was taken to East Alabama Medical Center for further evaluation. After the game, Malzahn said the player was doing well and would make a full recovery.
Despite the win, Auburn can expect to tumble at least a few spots in the next Associated Press poll.
There was nothing in this performance to impress the voters.
Mercer: The Bears return to their usual level of play when they visit East Tennessee State for a Southern Conference game.
Auburn: The Tigers travel to Missouri for the SEC opener.