But he more than made up for his muff in the second quarter against Tennessee, as he picked it up, made a few moves and cut to the sideline, racing 85 yards for a touchdown. It was the first punt returned for a touchdown by a Tiger since Robert Dunn did the same against Louisiana-Monroe in 2008 and the longest for Auburn since 1970.
While irritated he dropped the ball, Davis said he never gave up on the play.
“When it hit the ground, I saw that I still had a chance to pick it up and have a lot of room,” he said. “I just went with that.”
In Davis’ opinion, it provided a “huge momentum shift” at that stage of Saturday’s contest, which put Auburn ahead 20-13 with 9:51 to play before the half.
But Davis wasn’t the only special teams ace for the Tigers in their dominant 55-23 victory. Corey Grant matched Davis with a touchdown of his own, taking the opening kickoff in the third quarter back for a 90-yard score.
“As a returner, I saw where they over-pursued it a little bit,” Grant said. “There was a cut-back lane, and I just followed Ricardo Louis up through the hole, and from there, it was touchdown.”
The efforts from Davis and Grant didn’t just contribute to Auburn’s sixth straight win; it also helped set a NCAA record for average return yardage. The Tigers’ 44.85-yard average on seven kick/punt returns (totaling 312 yards) bettered Florida State’s 41.8-yard mark established versus Virginia Tech in 1974.
In the losing locker room, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was visibly displeased his team had so many breakdowns on special teams, deeming it an “unacceptable” showing.
“A kickoff return to start the second half and everything is about momentum and gaining momentum, that’s unacceptable,” he said. “A punt return for a touchdown, it’s unacceptable. It’s players getting off blocks and making a play in space.”
Red zone performance
As has been the calling card of Auburn’s defense this season, it bowed its neck when Tennessee got close to the end zone.
The Tigers allowed only 16 points on Saturday, with the other UT touchdown coming on an interception return against Nick Marshall in the second quarter.
Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said it was a point of pride for his unit to keep other teams out of the end zone.
“When it comes to red zone defense, we kind of take it personal, because we’ve been doing pretty good at it,” he said. “So it’s kind of a personal feeling. You don’t want to give up any points.”
He also said the defense was never worn down at any point in the game, despite the offense compiling four scoring drives that lasted two minutes or less.
“We’re in shape because we practice against this offense every day,” he said. “So we’re in shape for it. It’s just a matter of getting lined up and getting reads right. It’s not the physical (aspect).”
Mason hits 1,000
Tre Mason reached 1,000 yards rushing on a 10-yard carry in the third quarter.
He is the first Tiger to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons since Michael Dyer in 2010-11.
Cody Parkey had an extra-point blocked in the first quarter, snapping a streak of 90 straight makes for the senior kicker.
It was the first time the Tigers had a PAT blocked since 1996, when Jaret Holmes’ kick was knocked down by LSU.
Auburn will host Georgia next Saturday, with either CBS or ESPN providing coverage.
A year ago, the Bulldogs blew out the Tigers 38-0, but as with most meetings Auburn is having this year, things have changed.
Georgia is 6-3 after a 45-6 win over Appalachian State and needs to beat Auburn to have any shot at making the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs are 4-2 in SEC play.