COLUMBIA, S.C. — Auburn’s special teams unit looked at the video board in disbelief.
Late in the fourth quarter, trailing by four, the Auburn offense looked like it was going to get the ball back. The Tigers had forced a South Carolina punt with 2:16 left on the clock.
Demetris Robertson was deep for Auburn, South Carolina’s Kai Kroeger booted the ball downfield and Robertson waved his teammates off as the ball fell in front of him.
Jaylin Simpson had his back turned and the ball took a bounce toward him.
South Carolina picked the ball up and the officials originally ruled it as downed and Auburn’s ball. But after a second look via video review, it was ruled that Simpson had touched the ball and South Carolina got the ball back.
With no timeouts left for Auburn, it iced the game and the 21-17 win sent the Gamecocks to a bowl game for the first time since 2018.
“He touched it,” said head coach Bryan Harsin. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
“Didn’t see that on the field. They turned it over and decided that it touched him somewhere and, you know, again, in the game they made the decision. You can argue all you want, that’s the decision they made. It didn’t look like it on the field, but at the end of the day it didn’t go in our favor.”
It’s the first three-game losing streak for Auburn since 2012 and the second consecutive game where the Tigers have blown a double-digit lead.
Auburn punted on its first drive after receiving the opening kickoff but scored a touchdown on its final two first-quarter possessions. One was a 10-yard pass from T.J. Finley to Robertson and the other was a 7-yard touchdown run from Tank Bigsby.
Despite the loss, Bigsby had his best night of the season. He had a season-high 164 yards rushing on 22 carries, for an average of 7.5 yards per carry.
“Tank always plays hard. I believe in him,” said wide receiver Shedrick Jackson. “He’s always going to give his all and run hard and I believe in him. He’s a good player.”
Bigsby was not the only Tiger who put up a solid stat line, as Jackson set career marks himself. Jackson had seven receptions for 111 yards receiving and was Auburn’s best receiver on the field.
South Carolina answered with its 14-point quarter in the second. The Gamecocks’ second scoring drive began at the Auburn 35-yard line after the Tigers failed to convert on fourth-and-1.
On the fourth-and-1, Finley attempted a deep pass down the middle but it fell incomplete and the ball went to South Carolina. Bigsby was not on the field during the play.
“Well, you saw we took a shot on that,” Harsin said. “Being aggressive and trying to extend that drive. Felt like in practice, that play was a good play for us, and we felt like it was a good opportunity there to be aggressive and take that shot opportunity.”
Following the failed fourth-down conversion attempt, it took South Carolina five plays to reach the end zone and tie the game. Four of those plays were handoffs to running back Zaquandre White, who rushed for 34 of the 35 yards on the drive.
White finished the game just shy of the century mark, with 99 yards rushing on 16 carries. He also was USC’s leading receiver with 69 yards receiving on three receptions. It wasn’t anything particular that White did that Auburn struggled with, according to senior linebacker Chandler Wooten.
It was a lack of tackling, “plain and simple.”
“They did a good job feeding [White] tonight. He was a very big, strong back who ran extremely hard. So tip your hat to him. He's a very good player,” Wooten said. “We kind of knew what plays they were running; we just didn't tackle.”
Ben Patton made his first career field goal to give Auburn a slight advantage, but a 7-yard touchdown pass from Jason Brown to Josh Vann put South Carolina in front permanently later that quarter.
Auburn has now been outscored 57-9 in the second half of its last three games.
“We got to go back, and we got to look at things that we can do better,” Harsin said. “Really focus on the things that have come up this season in our training, in our preparation, certainly from this game and make that, again, a point of emphasis that we have got to find a way to have that show up in games and play four quarters.”
The Tigers will now turn their heads to in-state rival Alabama in the regular-season Iron Bowl finale next Saturday on Nov. 27. Kick-off is set for 2:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on CBS.
All you can do is man up and come back to work on Sunday,” Wooten said. “Because at the end of the day, this is life, you know what I mean? You don't get to lay down and pick and choose when you want to come to work. Everybody has a job to do, so we have to watch the film, correct it and get back to work tomorrow.”