ATLANTA, GA. (WSFA) - The No. 9 Auburn Tigers (1-0) will roll back into The Plains with a win after defeating the No. 6 Washington Huskies (0-1) 21-16 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
"There's no doubt it can give us momentum," said Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn in response to opening the season with a win over a top-10 opponent. "It definitely gives us momentum as far as before we get into SEC play, but it's just one game but we're excited to get the victory."
JaTatarvious Whitlow scored a touchdown from 10 yards out to give Auburn the go-ahead score with 6:15 to play.
It was a game that wasn't pretty for Auburn, who had to overcome over 100 yards in penalties - penalties that Malzahn called "uncharacteristic" of his team - but Malzhan's players stepped up when they were needed.
The Tigers opened fast on both sides of the ball, forcing a three-and-out on the game's opening drive, and then finding the end zone. Jarrett Stidham led a 6-play drive that ended with an acrobatic touchdown catch by Sal Canella.
"I'm proud of our team that the way that they won. Sometimes it's how you win a game that can help you later in the season," said Malzahn postgame.
In a duel of star quarterbacks, Stidham overshadowed the play of Washington's Jake Browning in the early going. Browning followed Auburn's touchdown drive by turning the ball over to the Tigers, throwing an interception.
Auburn turned that turnover into three points. Anders Carlson knocked through a 32-yarder to extend Auburn's lead to 9-0. It would be the first of his three field goals.
Auburn's defense looked strong in Saturday's game, allowing mostly field goals all day. The lone time the Tigers gave up a touchdown came just before the half.
Washington struck quickly in just four plays and 40 seconds. Browning threw the ball all four plays, totaling 75 yards and a touchdown to pull Washington to within two points, going into the half trailing 15-13.
The second half was a defensive battle. The Huskies defense seemed to figure out Auburn's offense and kept their own offense in the game.
Auburn's defense just proved to be too much.
The Auburn defense held strong, a staple of both Auburn and the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers allowed one Washington score in the second half, a fourth-quarter field goal that gave the Huskies their first lead of the game at 16-15.
That lead wouldn't last long.
After consecutive punts by both teams, Auburn got the ball back with just under 10 minutes to play.
In 3 minutes and 34 seconds, Stidham and the Auburn offense moved the ball down field with a series of passes. Three-consecutive running plays had Auburn eying a 3rd and 7 when the big play happened.
Stidham handed the ball off to Whitlow, who raced up the middle nearly untouched until he reached the goal line where he bulldozed a defender to reach the end zone, scoring his first career touchdown and giving Auburn both the lead and the momentum the team needed to close the game out.
It was now up to Washington's leader to try and engineer a comeback. Down 21-16, the Huskies took the field.
Browning took the Huskies into Auburn territory, but on third down, was sacked by Auburn's Big Cat Bryant. On 4th and 16, Washington was looking at starting its season 0-1.
Pressure from the Tigers forced yet another sack of Browning, turning the ball back over to Auburn with 1:31 to play in the game.
Washington used its two final timeouts and looked at stopping Auburn on 3rd down but Whitlow - once again - broke the backs of the Huskies, this time for good, picking up the first down and securing Auburn's win.
"We faced major adversity and out team found a way to win," said Malzahn.
Stidham finished with a very efficient 26-of-36 for 273 yards. Kam Martin led all rushers with 80 yards on 22 carries.
Auburn will be at Jordan-Hare Stadium next Saturday where they welcome in Alabama State. That game will kick at 6:30 p.m.