AUBURN, Ala. -- For the first 57 minutes and 59 seconds of Kansas State's game at No. 18 Auburn Saturday night the Wildcats held the Tigers out of the end zone. Auburn scored a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes, however, to rally for a 23-13 win over the upset-minded Wildcats in front of more than 86,000 fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Sophomore quarterback Josh Freeman was impressive on the opening drive, completing a trio of first-down passes on third-down situations to move K-State inside the Auburn 10-yard line to the displeasure of a rowdy Tiger fanbase. On a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line Freeman couldn't connect on a toss to Jordy Nelson in the end zone, however, forcing the Wildcats to settle for a 20-yard Brooks Rossman field goal that gave the Wildcats a 3-0 lead with 10:31 left in the opening period.
Auburn wasn't able to find any offensive success until late in the first quarter when Brandon Cox hooked up with Rod Smith for a 55-yard completion to the Wildcats' 18-yard line. Smith eluded three Wildcat tacklers in the open field after catching the pass initially at midfield to give the Tigers' their first scoring opportunity. Auburn kept the drive alive with a 3-yard Ben Tate run on fourth-and-one, but the possession eventually ended with a 20-yard field goal by Wes Bynum to tie the score at 3-3.
The Tigers took the lead midway through the second quarter on an 11-play, 44-yard drive that was capped off with a 39-yard Bynum field goal to make it 6-3. Cox used passes of 22 yards to Tate and 16 yards to tight end Gabe McKenzie to move AU into the red zone, but a sack by Rob Jackson on third down forced Auburn to bring on its kicker for the go-ahead points.
The first half nearly ended with some big-time fireworks, as Freeman had a Hail Mary attempt intercepted on the final play of the second quarter by Tray Blackmon. The Auburn linebacker returned the pick 49 yards before he was tripped up by Freeman, which saved a potential touchdown.
After picking up 61 yards on the opening drive K-State gained just 64 more over the remainder of the first half, but the Wildcat defense was stout in holding the Tiger offense to just 144 yards over the first two quarters of play.
The second half couldn't have started better for the Wildcats. Safety Marcus Watts intercepted a Cox throw on the first play from scrimmage, and the Wildcats marched 70 yards in six plays to take a 10-6 lead. Freeman's passing moved the ball down the field, but it was some trickery – a 23-yard pass from Nelson to running back Leon Patton – that served as the game's first touchdown to give the Wildcats a 10-6 lead less than two minutes into the third quarter.
K-State forced Auburn to go three-and-out on the ensuing drive, and the Wildcats added to their lead with a 41-yard Rossman field goal that made it 13-6. The drive covered 52 yards in 11 plays and included back-to-back reverses to receiver Deon Murphy, but K-State's hopes of a second consecutive touchdown ended when Freeman's third-down pass from the 24-yard line sailed incomplete.
Auburn's special teams turned the momentum late in the third quarter when Robert Dunn returned a K-State punt 57 yards deep into Wildcat territory. K-State's defense held, however, and made Bynum attempt his third field goal of the night. The freshman's kick was true, slicing K-State's lead to 13-9 with 1:46 left in the third quarter.
The Tigers marched the ball from their own 11-yard line to K-State's 30-yard line on its next possession, but Bynum missed on his fourth field goal try, this time from 47-yards out, to leave K-State's lead at 13-9.
K-State's defense dominated for much of the night, but Auburn found its offense when it needed it the most. The Tigers put together a six-play, 57-yard touchdown drive that was capped off by a 3-yard scoring toss from Cox to McKenzie with 2:01 left on the scoreboard to claim a 16-13 lead. The Tigers would then pad their advantage just 50 seconds later, when Antonio Coleman returned a Freeman fumble 34 yards for another touchdown.
Freeman finished the game 32 of 57 for 268 yards with two interceptions and the lost fumble. Cox, his counterpart, was 17 of 30 for 229 yards and two interceptions to go along with the game-winning touchdown toss. K-State out-gained Auburn 316-291 despite rushing for just 27 yards.
The Wildcats will look to bounce back next week when San Jose State visits Manhattan.