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Vanderbilt’s upset bid runs out of gas in 23-16 loss at No. 9 Auburn

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The Commodores had one of their best performances of the season, but it wasn’t enough to pull off the win.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt’s offense looked as good as it had all season, but a rejuvenated Kyle Shurmur wasn’t enough to upset No. 9 Auburn on the road.

The Commodores led the Tigers 13-10 at halftime and gave their top 10 opponent a scare, but a tired offense and a controversial call allowed Auburn to escape with the win. Shurmur completed 24 of his 36 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown, and an interception to provide the Tigers’ stiffest test since September. Auburn escaped with a 23-16 victory.

These two teams came out swinging. Vanderbilt took the game’s opening possession 41 yards — it would have been more if not for some costly drops — before Tommy Openshaw drilled a career-long 52-yard field goal to stake an early 3-0 lead. It only lasted three-and-a-half minutes before Auburn answered with a three-yard touchdown dive from Kerryon Johnson.

Another big drop downfield helped hamper Vanderbilt’s return drive, and these two teams exchanged punts before a low snap helped Auburn take over inside Vandy territory. The Tigers looked like they’d escape with some points, but Ladarius Wiley stung John Franklin III at the tail end of a quarterback keeper, forcing a fumble Zach Cunningham would jump on.

The ‘Dores used this extra life to methodically drive 66 yards to the AU end zone. Kyle Shurmur converted a huge third-and-four situation into a Vanderbilt touchdown when Jared Pinkney pulled down a pass over the middle before barging his way to six points.

Auburn turned to its hurry-up offense to keep an otherwise effective Vandy defense on its heels, and a selection of running plays led to a 45-yard Daniel Carlson field goal to tie the game at 10-all.

But the revitalized Commodore offense wasn’t ready to head to the locker room with a tie. Shurmur, who found nine different teammates in a 14-18 first half performance, found open receivers in a pair of clutch third down conversions to power a 57-yard drive into the Auburn red zone. Openshaw squeaked a 34-yard field goal through the uprights to give Vanderbilt a 13-10 lead at the half.

That led Gus Malzahn to make a change two start the third quarter. He turned to injured quarterback Sean White after Franklin had gained just nine yards through the air in the first half. The accurate passer led Auburn back to the lead with his first drive of the game — thanks to a little help from the SEC officials.

Zach Cunningham appeared to strip Kerryon Pettway at the VU 30 yard line, but the referee reversed the call after consulting the replay. A replay that produced zero evidence Pettway was down before losing the ball.

Two plays later, White hit Darius Slayton with a 21-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-13 Tigers. Carlson added a 53-yard field goal one drive later to push the lead to seven points at the end of the third quarter.

Shurmur drove Vanderbilt back into Auburn territory in response. He found C.J. Duncan for a huge 20-yard gain on third-and-14 behind a tremendous blitz pickup from Ralph Webb:

The Vandy drive stalled out soon after, but Openshaw made Saturday his finest day as a college kicker by kicking a 47-yard field goal to cut the home team’s lead to 20-16.

Auburn only needed 2:27 to counter. The Tigers spanned 78 yards in just 49 seconds thanks to a long kickoff return, a 20-yard pass, and a 16-yard Kerryon Pettway run before their drive stalled out in the VU red zone. Another Carlson field goal pushed Auburn’s advantage back to 23-16.

The two teams exchanged punts before the Commodores trapped Auburn in a third-and-1 situation that helped decide the outcome of the game. Pettway burst up the middle for 60 yards before chugging to a stop at the VU 10 yard line after suffering an injury in the open field. That gave the Carlson the space he needed to attempt a 35-yard field goal, but Zach Cunningham leaped over long snapper Ike Powell and blocked the kick to give the ‘Dores new life.

A tipped pass on fourth-and-18 gave Vandy the miracle it needed to move into Auburn territory, but Shurmur couldn’t connect with his WRs two plays later, throwing an interception to Joshua Holsey that sealed the Commodores’ fate.

Vanderbilt fell to 4-5 (1-4 in the SEC) with the loss. Auburn improved to 7-2 (5-1). The Commodores return to the field next week for a road showdown with Missouri.