LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Something about third down seemed to spark Auburn, and Peyton Barber’s clutch execution on the money play helped give the Tigers a long-awaited Southeastern Conference victory.
Barber rushed for two short touchdowns, including a 3-yarder on third-and-one with 7:56 remaining, helping Auburn outlast Kentucky 30-27 on Thursday night and earn its first SEC victory.
That final TD provided a critical buffer against Mikel Horton’s 1-yard TD run with 4:06 left that brought Kentucky within a field goal.
That score was also the last of Barber’s three third-down runs totaling 10 yards that extended the Tigers’ key possession and ended up providing a crucial cushion.
Those plays also typified a night in which the Tigers (4-2, 1-2 SEC) converted 11 of 18 chances. Meanwhile, their defense was stingy, allowing Kentucky (4-2, 2-2) to make just 5 of 13 opportunities.
The combined effort helped give Auburn a sorely needed conference win in hopes of contending in the West division. The Tigers started and closed strong behind Barber, who rushed for a 1-yard TD on their opening drive en route to 92 yards rushing on 26 carries.
Barber was not available after the game, but Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said, “we were very good on third down.”
Kerryon Johnson added 36 yards, including a 6-yard TD on nine attempts. Sean White threw for 255 yards, 154 to Ricardo Louis, as the Tigers won their ninth straight in Lexington.
Kentucky’s final attempt to at least tie the game ended with quarterback Patrick Towles being sacked on fourth down with 25 seconds left.
Auburn was outgained 497-407 but made several timely plays of both sides of the ball, including the defensive stand that denied Kentucky three yards on two plays on its final drive.
“Big win for our team. I’m very proud,” said Malzahn, who went visor-less to honor South Carolina counterpart Steve Spurrier, who retired on Tuesday. His visor will be auctioned off to help that state’s flood relief efforts.
“All three phases helped us win this game and we probably played our best overall game of the year. We had some explosive plays and finally got in a rhythm.”
Auburn hasn’t always played like that after starting the season ranked sixth before falling out of the Top 25. But the Tigers made Kentucky play catch-up all night and maintained its dominance at Commonwealth Stadium.
“We made some adjustments and played much better in the second half, and had plenty of opportunities to get the game tied up or go up,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We never could do that and get that momentum.”
Auburn set the tone right away with touchdowns on its first two possessions and points on five of its first six drives. White had a lot to do with those first two TDs, using lots of time to find receivers and complete his first three third-down passes for 59 yards alone. He completed 17 of 27 passes without an interception and was sacked just once.
“We left a couple plays out there I think,” White said, “but you can tell our offense is rolling pretty well. We have to keep that up.”
Barber and Johnson capped both drives with TD runs and Daniel Carlson added field goals from 34, 29 and 52 yards, his third from beyond 50 this season.
Kentucky managed to tie the game on its first possession thanks to speedy sophomore Boom Williams, who returned from a one-game absence to handle personal matters. He quickly made his presence felt by taking a delayed handoff for 60 yards to the Auburn 3 before scoring from the 1 two plays later.
Kentucky trailed 23-10 at halftime before regrouping on both sides of the ball to score 10 unanswered points. That’s when Auburn’s offense awoke from a scoreless third quarter to provide the crucial score and spoil Kentucky’s first Thursday night home game since 1939 before a sellout crowd of 63,407.
Towles was 27 of 44 for 359 yards passing. Williams gained 113 yards on 16 carries including two TDs.