ATLANTA, Ga. -- Will Muschamp's defense made a couple of huge plays early for No. 6 Auburn to offset three interceptions by Jeremy Johnson, and the Tigers held off Louisville and surprise quarterback Lamar Jackson for a 31-24 victory Saturday.
The Tigers' first touchdown in the season opener was set up by an interception. Justin Garrett returned a fumble 82 yards to make it 14-0.
That's just what Auburn wanted out of Muschamp,
Not that it was smooth sailing for the Tigers, who led 17-0 at halftime and seemed to be up comfortably 31-10 after a touchdown with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Jackson, a freshman who got the bulk of the playing time over three more experienced quarterbacks, led the Cardinals to a couple of late touchdowns that made Auburn sweat it out.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino did not name a starting quarterback before the game, his decision seemingly confirmed when he sent out sophomore Reggie Bonnafon for the first snap. But barely noticed, Jackson also took the field. The direct snap to him was botched, he wound up scrambling to his right and threw a desperation pass that was picked off by Tray Matthews. He returned it 35 yards to the Louisville 26, setting up Johnson's 1-yard touchdown run.
Bonnafon played into the second quarter before giving way to Jackson for good. The freshman was 9 of 20 passing for 100 yards. He also led the Cardinals in rushing with 106 yards on 16 carries, including a 10-yard touchdown late in the third quarter for Louisville's first TD.
Even though he spent the last two years behind Nick Marshall, Johnson came into the season hyped as one of the potential breakout stars in coach Gus Malzahn's explosive spread offense. He was only 11 of 21 for 127 yards, though he did have a 33-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis.
Muschamp's defense that set the early tone for the Tigers.
The biggest play came midway through the second quarter when Louisville was driving. Bonnafon fumbled an attempted handoff, Garrett scooped it up at the 18, and off he went the other way for the touchdown, Muschamp running with him nearly stride for stride along the sideline.
Johnson was picked off twice in the first half by former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who sat out last season after transferring to Louisville. The Auburn quarterback was also intercepted by Trumaine Washington in the third quarter, foolishly trying to force a pass into coverage. That led to Jackson's TD run that made it 24-10.
The Tigers appeared to wrap in up when Louis scampered 7 yards for a touchdown with 10:04 left.
Brandon Radcliff's 2-yard scoring run cut the deficit to a mere touchdown with 2:59 remaining.
Auburn recovered the onside kick and managed to run out the clock.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org
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