Vanderbilt went toe to toe with Auburn on the road, but the Tigers hung on to thwart a last-minute drive and preserve a 23-16 victory over Vanderbilt at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Quarterback Sean White came off the bench to throw the go-ahead touchdown early in the second half, kicker Daniel Carlson hit three field goals and running back Kamryn Pettway rushed 25 times for 173 yards as Auburn, No. 9 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, stayed in the hunt for a playoff berth.
With 1:41 left in the game, Carlson looked poised to hit a 36-yard field goal that would have given the Tigers (7-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) a likely-insurmountable lead. But Commodores linebacker Zach Cunningham timed the snap perfectly, leapt over players on both lines of scrimmages and swatted the kick.
"It was one of those days," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "Not a whole lot went our way. Every time you turned around, there was something going against us."
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur (24-of-36, 221 yards, one touchdown, one interception) led Vanderbilt to the Auburn 30, but was picked by Tigers cornerback Josh Holsey with 36 seconds left.
After passing for just nine yards in the first half with surprise starter John Franklin III, Auburn went to its regular starter, White, to open the second half. After replay officials overturned what was ruled on the field as a fumble by running back Kerryon Johnson that Cunningham forced, White (10-of-13, 106 yards, one touchdown) hit wide-open receiver Darius Slayton with a 21-yard scoring strike on the right side of the end zone two plays later to give the Tigers a 17-13 lead.
Auburn, which gained 632 and 554 yards in wins in their previous two games over Arkansas and Ole Miss, was held to 386 by the Vanderbilt defense.
But, White's presence in the second half made a difference.
"You have to play a guy who is capable of making throws," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "(White's) completion percentage had been good. He made short throws, he made, really, all the throws he needed to make to keep them on schedule. That's the difference between he and Franklin. Franklin's more of a wildcat quarterback who can throw, but that's not what they'd asked him to do to this point. We knew he was more of a runner and we sort of isolated him and tried to play him that way."
Carlson easily connected on a 53-yarder to give the Tigers their biggest lead at 20-13 with 5:57 left in the third quarter.
But the Commodores wouldn't quit, and kicker Tommy Openshaw connected from 47 early in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to four.
In the first half, Vanderbilt's LaDarius Wiley forced a fumble that Cunningham recovered. Nine plays later, Shurmur hit tight end Jared Pinkney for an 8-yard score.
Auburn's Johnson answered with a 3-yard scoring run, and Carlson and Openshaw traded field goals as Vanderbilt took a 13-10 lead at half.
Pettway became the first Auburn player to top 150 yards in four-straight games since Bo Jackson. That included a 60-yard run to set up the field goal that Cunningham blocked, one on which Pettway would have scored on if not for pulling up lame on the play.
Cunningham, an Alabama native who was just named a semifinalist for both the Butkus and Bednarik awards, approached Mason on the sideline with the idea of letting him try the leap to block the field goal. It was something VU had practiced, and Mason gave the go-ahead.
"I said yes," Mason said. "That's what you do. You let players that have abilities different than the guys on your squad do different things. I'm not calling it the Jordan Rule, but I will call it the Cunningham Rule. You let him loose and you let your players make plays, and that's what he did for us."
Cunningham led the Commodores (4-5, 1-4 SEC) with nine tackles.
Auburn won its sixth-straight game and moved into sole possession of second place in the SEC West after Mississippi State upset Texas A&M.
NOTES: Auburn QB Sean White sustained a shoulder injury, which caused him to miss practice all week. ... Auburn starting MLB Deshawn Davis was ejected for targeting at the 7:53 mark of the first quarter for a hit on VU WR Kalija Lipscomb. ... Auburn didn't throw a pass until its 12th snap. ... Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb, the SEC's second-leading rusher coming in, played with a heavily-taped left ankle. Ankle injuries have plagued Webb for about a month now.